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As The Water Crisis Continues, Flint's Superintendent Looks Forward

Zariah Garner, age 9 of Flint, rests on a stack of water as National Guard members and civilians carry cases to vehicles.

In September of last year, a Flint pediatrician released stark findings about her city: The percentage of children age 5 and under with elevated levels of lead in their blood had nearly doubled since the city switched its water source a year and a half earlier.

The superintendent of Flint Community Schools, Bilal Tawwab, was listening. Even small amounts of lead can affect children's behavior and intelligence over time. With that in mind, he decided to keep the city's water out of his schools.

Cafeterias started providing children with fruit that can be peeled instead of fruit that needed to be rinsed. The drinking fountains were shut off, and bottled water was brought in from across the nation. Tawwab tells Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne that water donations have been out of sight: "I mean, it's been major."

But despite his fast response, he tells Renee, as he thinks about the future, he can't help but worry about facing a possible influx of students who may have suffered irreversible harm:

You've said that worry about educating children exposed to lead in Flint's water crisis keeps you up at night. What exactly are you facing here?

That's the million-dollar question. We really don't know, and so we're just focusing now on making sure that we have the necessary resources so that we're able to respond to whatever the needs are. ... I'm responsible for 5,400 kids. I'm thinking, OK, I cannot sit and not respond. So I'm making this decision, but I'm saying, wow, I have little money. How would I be able to meet the water needs of our kids? But I had to make the decision to keep them safe.

You do need money to put any new programs into effect, to bring in any new personnel. Flint schools, as I understand it, run a deficit already of about $10.5 million?

The deficit is definitely declining, but yes, we do have roughly a $10.5 million deficit, so that presents a challenge because you're thinking about the systems that need to be put in place so that we are able to, you know, best meet the needs of all of our children while making cuts.

Let's talk about things you would want to do.

Immediately we want to be able to expand our early childhood options for that child aged 0 to 5. And then beyond ages 0 to 5, we're talking about behavior intervention staff, you know, that specialty staff needed to support the individual needs of these children.

And how is life at the schools? Are kids able to concentrate? Are they thinking about the lead all the time? Paint us a picture.

We're definitely not new to this, because we started things in September, so our kids are pretty calm. I know some of our students are starting to ask more questions, because they're seeing it more on the news and folks are talking. And so now we are focused on being able to provide our students with more lead education.

What kinds of questions are the kids asking?

"Am I impacted? Or what's going to happen? You know, if I — if I consumed this water that there may be some challenges — so, you know, help me understand." And some may want to know, "What can I do to help myself?" And so we're talking about diet and things of that nature, which is very important. Much education around that is needed at this point.

So, these kids, though, are highly aware of what's going on?

If you live in the city of Flint, yeah, I would say so. It's, I mean, it's the talk of the town. It's the talk of the nation.

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