A drive to make safe drinking water available to all Jersey City public school students and staff has entered its third and final stage, Schools Superintendent Norma Fernandez said recently.

Since the start, Guarini Plumbing, a local vendor, has been entrusted with plans to replace lead service pipes that deliver water to city school facilities with new equipment that will allow the safe consumption of water from drinking fountains and kitchen faucets.

Now, Fernandez said, the district is down to its 13 remaining educational facilities which accommodate about 7,000 students.

James Nelson, education team leader with Jersey City Together, a civic advocacy group and a public school parent, credited the district and Guarini with marshaling all those involved in the project which, he noted, involves mounting of “dew boards,” tiling and the actual fountain installation to safely deliver drinking water.

The final 13 are: Mahatma K. Gandhi Elementary School 23, 143 Romaine Ave.; Martin Luther King Elementary School 11, 886 Bergen Ave.; West Side Pre-School Center, 1000 West Side Ave.; Liberty High School, 299 Sip Ave.; Renaissance Institute, 128 Duncan Ave.; Chaplain Charles Watters Elementary School 24, 220 Virginia Ave.; Dr. Maya Angelou Elementary School 20, 239 Ocean Ave.; Patricia Noonan Elementary School 26, 164 Laidlaw Ave.; Alexander D. Sullivan Elementary School 30, 171 Seaview Ave.; A. Harry Moore Laboratory School, 2078 Kennedy Blvd.; Lincoln High School Junior Academy, 550-552 Communipaw Ave.; Anthony J. Infante Early Childhood Center at School 31, 3055 Kennedy Blvd.; and the Glenn Cunningham Early Childhood Center, 218 Ocean Ave.

Jersey City School Superintendent Norma Fernandez
Jersey City School Superintendent Norma Fernandez

What makes each lead pipe removal a chore, Fernandez said, is that “you have to start from the (water) main outside, and that’s why replacing the (lead) piping from the street is so lengthy a process.”

Here’s how Fernandez described the work process:

Old fountains are removed by breaking open walls and repairing masonry, sheetrock and tile. If there’s a waste line in the wall, the plumber snakes out the line, flushes it and tests it with water. If there’s no waste line, the plumber installs a new PVC waste line to the nearest drain, which sometimes can be more than 100 feet away. That’s followed by installation of a 2×4 metal stud wall to hold the new fountain, followed by fully tiling the wall with 3×6 white subway tile with charcoal grout. Then, each new fountain gets a 120-volt GFi-protected outlet from the nearest panel. To ensure lead-free water, the plumber installs a new water service from the street with lead-free copper products. The process includes excavating the street to install a new 1 ½-inch water service from the main to the school building with a backflow preventer.

The plumber then installs a 1-inch, ¾-inch and ½-inch copper throughout the school building, supplying only the drinking fountains. All new piping is insulated.

Each school gets Elkay water coolers in places where there were previous fountains and also in areas where no fountains existed. If a section of the school is a dry area, a fountain is added. Every nurse’s room, pre-K and kindergarden room gets one as well. Also, any ice machine will be supplied with the new lead-free water.

Fernandez said the district is tapping a federal “equity” grant of about $3.1 million to complete the district-wide mission of ensuring that every child, educator and employee in every local school building is consuming water with no attendant health risks.

Before faucets are activated, Fernandez said, district administrators check with Tectonic, an engineering consultant based in Mountainville, N.Y., which has been retained by the city Board of Education to test drinking water outlets at schools as per the current testing protocols set by the state Department of Education and Department of Environmental Protection.

Tectonic has advised the district that it has “developed a systematic quality assurance project plan, plus a sampling and analysis plan, and plumbing profile for each (school) location to guide the testing” and that it has “worked with (school) facilities staff, the business office, other professionals, plumbers and maintenance staff to achieve this result.”

Testing results are posted online on each school’s website, as required by the state DOE, in an effort to keep the stakeholders informed on a timely basis, Fernandez said.

For the remaining 13 school sites, Fernandez said, “The goal is to install as many (unleaded) pipes as possible.” Realistically, she added, “I would estimate it will take us to the end of calendar 2025 to complete this last phase.”

Until then, she said, students and staff, at their discretion, will continue to get bottled water during the class day. “We will keep our water outlets shut down until we get back acceptable testing results from the consultant,” she added.

For the 13 school sites involved in its third and final phase of lead pipe replacements, Fernandez estimated that Guarini would end up installing a total of 63 single water fountains at a cost projected at $2,800 each and a total of 73 double fountains billed at $3,100 apiece.

Neither price, however, includes the cost of installing those fountains or all of the piping that runs from the street main to the fountain infrastructure, she noted. She had no projected price for that work.

For the prior two phases, Fernandez said those school sites were equipped with a total of 305 single water fountains and 438 doubles at the same cost. Again, she couldn’t provide a dollar tally for the piping installation or for the related infrastructure work.

The district launched its lead pipe removal campaign in 2020 during the onset of the pandemic when schools were closed, thereby allowing for a less cumbersome work schedule, unimpeded by the presence of students and staff, who didn’t physically return until fall 2023.

Aside from the lead and Covid issues, Fernandez said the district has had to deal with a cutback of $250 million in the last five years – a loss that has impaired its ability to maintain its aging physical plant.

“Eighty percent of our buildings are 100 years old or older,” she said.

It also has tentative plans for rehabilitation work at Elementary Schools 29, 23 and 38 and at Ferris High School, she said.

That work, Fernandez said, may involve upgrading heating and ventilating systems, improved LED lighting, repairs to roofs, capping and removing oil burners for replacement by more efficient gas-powered utilities.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...