Yellow water from art teacher Erin Mapes sink. Courtesy of Mapes.
Yellow water from art teacher Emily Mapes sink. Courtesy of Mapes.

Educators at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 school threatened to demonstrate and potentially walk off the job if the school district doesn’t address recent concerns over arsenic and lead on site.

Their demands: By Tuesday, Dec. 13, the school district must test every water fountain at BVHM for lead; provide a mobile testing site for contaminants and toxins on school grounds; and supply enough filtered water for all students and staff to drink until the school’s pipes have been tested. If the district fails to meet the deadline, educators will hold an “action campaign” to inform and organize families about conditions. If these demands remain unmet after the holiday break, staff will plan walkouts, said Sara Mokhtari-Fox, an eighth grade teacher and member of the school’s Union Building Committee, a part of the teacher’s union. 

“We understand it might be difficult to coordinate on-site testing by Tuesday, but we want to have plans, at least, so that we can feel safe in our schools,” Mokhtari-Fox told Mission Local.

The requests come after soil samples in the K-8 school’s garden tested positive for arsenic and lead last week, which was first reported by The San Francisco Standard. The contaminants were found as the school district prepares for a modernization of the nearly century-old school, which has, for years, reported multiple health and safety issues. Though educators and students for years complained of the school’s substandard conditions, a gas leak story that Mission Local broke spurred officials to action. 

So when Mokhtari-Fox overheard principal Claudia Delarios-Morán on the phone talking about arsenic last week, she knew more bad news awaited. Then came the loudspeaker announcement that the garden was closed due to contamination; they’d learned that hazardous material was found in the soil

It was “just, like, AGAIN? Why is it that every year, there’s at least one, if not more, absurd event that directly affects kids?” Mokhtari-Fox asked. “It’s district negligence.” 

The garden was immediately closed and fenced off once the district learned of the arsenic sample, according to an SFUSD statement. 

A group of Buena Vista Horace Mann teachers protesting the conditions of the school following a gas leak the Friday before. Photo taken by Annika Hom, Aug. 30, 2021.

“The SFUSD Facilities Division takes seriously its responsibility to provide a safe and healthy environment for students and staff. Given the recent detection of lead in soil on the site, SFUSD is arranging for the SFPUC as soon as possible to test all water outlets at BVHM that are identified by the site as being used for drinking or food preparation,” the statement continued.

Moving forward, any water outlet discovered to have more than 5 parts per billion of lead will be shut off immediately, the district stated. Families and staff will be notified of all resultant actions.  

Matt Alexander, a member of the San Francisco Board of Education, said he is hopeful that the district is reacting appropriately to the issues, which he feels is an improvement from last year.

Alexander pointed to how ideas from Buena Vista families and educators are getting incorporated into the new modernization plan. 

The lead and arsenic discovery “came up as part of the modernization testing. It’s not uncommon to find a result,” Alexander added, noting that other parts of San Francisco have tested positive for contaminants like serpentine or lead. “I think the question is how they are responding. They had a meeting Monday night. What I’ve seen is a commitment now from our central office.” 

Indeed on Monday, district officials held a community meeting with Buena Vista educators to discuss the lead and arsenic findings. Multiple teachers confirmed to Mission Local that Superintendent Dr. Matt Wayne told them that the district is willing to reimburse students who tested for contaminants. 

Educators worry that students and families, many who are low-income and Latinx immigrants, may not have access to a primary care physician or pediatrician to get tested on their own time. 

“Those tests can be anywhere from between $50 to $100,” Mokharti-Fox said. “The assumption is that they have that lying around, and that they have insurance to begin with. It’s not an acceptable response.”

Fourth grade teacher Perry Siniard wondered why not every water outlet or fountain has been tested yet. The last time the water had been tested was in 2018, at which time it was deemed safe, the district stated. 

“Where’s the urgency?” he asked, ducking out of the rain outside at Buena Vista on Thursday afternoon. 

Siniard listed colleagues whose water fountains and sinks ran yellow or brown water. Depending on who you ask, he said, they’ll “tell you a different color!” Just then, he spotted the middle school art teacher, Erin Mapes, who just yesterday had turned on her sink in the art room and got her color: Yellow. 

Mapes’s sink water has run yellow off and on for the past two weeks. She applauded how, today, a representative associated with Buena Vista’s renovation visited to check the quality — but today, the water ran clear. After teaching for seven years at a school riddled with problems, Mapes wonders if the district is acting quickly enough. 

“On the one hand, it’s nice to have some action and some attention. On the other hand, some of these emergencies must be dealt with much faster than a year from now,” Mapes said. 

Until the tests are complete, Siniard said providing bottled or filtered water immediately is a must, given his students’ apparent concerns about drinking water. He estimated that one-third of his class missed school the day after the arsenic was discovered. 

“They said, ‘Mr. Perry, I don’t think we should read on [in our book] because not enough kids are here,’” he recalled. 

Supervisor Hillary Ronen last year allocated $140,000 toward an independent investigation of the school’s needs, ahead of a $40 million renovation project that the district approved. Ronen aims to facilitate different departments to test the safety of the soil and water and keep students safe, said Jen Ferrigno, a Ronen legislative aide. 

“We need to help rebuild their trust to make sure their kids are well taken care of,” Ferrigno said. 

Siniard said the design for the new modernization centered around the garden, and now that might be in jeopardy, given the lead and arsenic found there.

Trust hinges on the modernization overall. Educators have long been frustrated with renovations that have been put off during the past decade. 

“We made this discovery because the district was testing for the renovation process,” Mapes said. “It really makes me wonder how long it’s been like that. I keep coming back to the fact that our school has been in need of a renovation for so long. So much attention has been reactive to the problems instead of being proactive in making the school better.” 

Several years back, Mapes witnessed a tile fall from her classroom ceiling and onto her desk. 

“It’s not fair, it’s not equitable. Our families deserve better.”

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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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