Someone holding up a bottle of contaminated water
Yellow water from art teacher Erin Mapes' sink in December 2022. Courtesy of Mapes.

Fifth-grade teacher Adriana Álvarez dipped the test strip into the yellowish water last Friday, and showed the results to her students. They gasped. Now, the Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 teacher and students knew for certain: The water leaking from their classroom’s ceiling contained high levels of lead. 

The results of the science experiment underscore how recent weather has created the perfect storm for Buena Vista where, already in late 2022, the district reported that lead had shown up in tests of the community garden and some water outlets. Then, the New Year’s Eve storm flooded classrooms over the winter break, and multiple atmospheric rivers have continued to disrupt classrooms and set back the school district’s response to the earlier arsenic and lead findings.  

The ceiling in Adriana Álvarez’s fifth-grade classroom at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8.

The district promised in December to shut off and test the water, replace the garden’s soil, and coordinate free lead testing. Lead testing for students who do not have primary care doctors will finally start  Jan. 23. It’s unclear how many students are in this group. BayPLS, the phlebotomists who run the 24th and Capp street vaccine site, will administer the tests. 

Out of 98 water outlets tested by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in December, 12 showed higher than normal levels of lead, according to a district update sent to parents and reviewed by Mission Local. Fixtures with higher lead levels were shut off, and a few more fixtures were earmarked for testing Jan. 10. 

Meanwhile, the rain temporarily curtailed the community garden remediation. The courtyard remains fenced off — however, smaller children may be able to get in, teachers said. Sixth-grade teacher Paloma López said staff was warned that the inundation had created holes in the garden large enough for kids to possibly drown in. “It’s a disturbing update,” López said later. “Make sure the kids don’t drown!”

But the past few days have been especially hectic for the fifth-grade teacher Álvarez, who walked into her classroom the day after vacation to discover “the floor covered in water, the desks covered in water, the carpet super wet.” Her third-floor classroom previously had one leak, which the storm turned into four. 

Still, along with two other fifth-grade teachers, Álvarez saw a teaching moment. Following the arsenic and lead news in December, the educators decided their students would investigate the school’s deteriorating conditions through a journalism unit, and test Buena Vista’s water for contaminants through a science unit. 

“We just thought, since this was such a big deal at our school right now, the kids should see the results for themselves,” Álvarez said. They should “take ownership of their own community, and have access to their own information.” 

So, while other fifth-grade teachers tested water fountains, Álvarez asked her students if they wished to test the water from their ceiling leak. They agreed. Álvarez slid the strip under the document camera, unleashing a deluge of exclamations and questions from the kids. OMG! They gasped. Lead!

“They were scared,” Álvarez recalled, but the results also got the kids thinking. Are we breathing in lead, right now? They asked. Why does the classroom smell funny? Is it because there’s lead in the walls? 

These were questions Álvarez shared, though she was more focused on her students’ safety, her damaged classroom, and the fact she needed to evacuate her class. The atmospheric river hit Jan. 4 and 5, and Álvarez tested the water on Friday, Jan. 6. She received permission from Principal Claudia DeLarios Morán to evacuate her students from the classroom into the library the following Monday. 

“I just realized it wasn’t safe,” Álvarez said. “It’s not a suitable learning environment.”

Eventually, without a classroom of her own, Álvarez agreed to split her class and send them into two other fifth-grade classes. Classes of about 20 turned into classes of about 30. 

“I’m kinda bouncing back and forth, trying to see my kids. It’s been quite hectic, but it’s also been really helpful to collaborate with my fifth-grade team,” she said. 

Her students seemed anxious about the change: Would their belongings stay dry, when would they return? Álvarez does not know; construction workers were spotted on Tuesday, and apparently the room is back down to one leak. 

It’s unclear if the fixes will last. Sixth-grade teacher López taught in the same room, Room 311, five years ago, and recalled complaining to maintenance about leaks and ceiling tiles that fell off in class. To both teachers, the continued problems underscore the district’s failure to proactively address and renovate the school. Only after Mission Local reported on a gas leak in 2021 were efforts renewed to allocate money to renovate the century-old school. 

Meanwhile, a leak drips near the charging station for kids’ Chromebooks in López’s current room. A water stain is inevitable, but other problems are more pressing. “I have to remove the computers, or they’ll get damaged, but if I cannot charge them, the students cannot use them,” López said. 

López and Álvarez are not alone. 

“I came back from break to find a leak, that there were ceiling tiles crumbling where the leak had been, and traces of a puddle of water covering a large part of my classroom,” wrote art teacher Erin Mapes in an email.

Mapes’ classroom ran yellow water, and was identified as having higher than acceptable levels of lead in December. She, too, has experienced ceiling tiles falling off during class. Mapes put in a work order, and maintenance removed the loose tiles and fixed the leaks for now. Still, she and educators expressed frustration.

“It’s really just unbelievable,” Mapes said. “All the nonsense that’s been happening, because our building is literally toxic and falling apart.”

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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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