Lead in Worcester School’s Water System Leaves Students Out to Dry


Claremont Academy is located just a few blocks from Clark’s main campus. Photo courtesy of Everett Beals (’24).

Everett Beals, News Editor

Claremont Academy is a bustling public school in the heart of Main South, the largest in the neighborhood, serving more than 500 students between grades 7 and 12. When they’re at school, they all have the same thing on their mind: water.

“A lot of students will say, ‘I’m thirsty,’ and ask if I have any water,” explained Sarah Cramer ’16, who teaches eighth-grade pre-algebra at Claremont. She also co-teaches CYES 250, a Clark education course. “If I had unlimited resources, I would just buy water bottles for students every day,” she said. “But I don’t.”

Two years ago, Worcester Public Schools (WPS) mandated that drinking fountains be closed to avoid the spread of COVID. When students returned this Fall with the option to go maskless, the fountains never reopened.

In June of this year, WPS conducted a district-wide water contamination study, testing for lead and copper prevalence. Claremont has eight listed water fountains. All eight are closed after the study found dangerous quantities of lead.  

The laboratory detection limit – an actionable standard the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) uses as a measure of significance – is 1 part per billion, or 0.001 milligrams of lead per liter of water. Every water fixture at Claremont recorded a lead concentration above this limit. One fountain measured as high as 0.094 milligrams per liter. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls lead “a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.” EPA sets the national standard for acceptable lead levels in drinking water at zero. That standard is only a “health goal,” though, and not law, given the parts-per-billion is underneath the legal threshold of 15.  

At Claremont Academy, water fountains were brought out of service in accordance with state guidelines. They’ll remain closed until the lead concentration in drinking water can be brought down to the “lowest possible concentration,” according to a public release dated June 2022, from the Superintendent’s Office. 


That release, despite being published in June, was not provided to teachers at Claremont until late August – just a few days after school started – according to Cramer. 

She explained that she found the letter, a single double-sided page, in her faculty mailbox. Cramer was instructed to give copies to students. 

“I felt shocked reading it,” Cramer said. “This is a serious thing – why are we being told now, when this happened in the Spring?” 

Cramer explained that she gave out the copies, but tried not to cause any alarm. She figured her eighth graders hadn’t been exposed because the fountains had been offline for the length of their time at Claremont. 

Students enrolled at Claremont before the pandemic were exposed, however. So were teachers, if they drank water at school. 

“I was like, well, I’ve been drinking this water,” Cramer said. She explained that staff were never given explicit direction on what to do after the test results were released. “No one told us as staff we shouldn’t drink this water” before the letters were given out, she said. 

In place of water fountains, the school has provided 16.9-ounce water bottles, given out in the cafeteria at lunch. “For each grade, there are two 24-packs… but our grades are twice the size of that, so there is not enough for everyone,” Cramer said. Occasionally, the school office or the nurse has more bottles, she said. But that’s never a guarantee. 

“There used to be a vending machine where students could buy water, but they took that out,” she said. 

Cramer told The Scarlet that the scramble to get enough water has been disruptive for her students. “I think if you’re well-fed and well-hydrated, studies have shown, you can perform better,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like students are withering away from a lack of hydration. But it’s just a need that should be met. It shouldn’t be an obstacle for them to get water.”

Most students, Cramer said, don’t bring their water from home. “Carrying around a reusable water bottle is not something that I see often,” she said. The one water bottle given out at lunch, she added, isn’t always enough to get students through the day comfortably. “When they come to my 7th period, after gym class, they’re like, ‘I need water,’” she added. “They’re sweaty, and they want water.”

To keep herself hydrated, Cramer brings two full Nalgenes from home, every day. “I have a third one I keep at school as an emergency water ration for myself,” she said.


The initiative to test for lead and copper in public schools began in 2016 when Governor Charlie Baker announced that two million dollars had been allocated to help Massachusetts schools test their water. WPS applied and was accepted for the program that year. 

Two tests are taken at every water fixture when the school is operating at full capacity. One is taken at the first use of the tap that day, and a second after water is allowed to run for 30 seconds. The tests are conducted by the District and the Worcester Division of Public Health, with “technical assistance” provided by Massachusetts DEP. 

Worcester Public Schools conducted an incomplete survey of lead contamination in 2016. Neither Claremont Academy nor Woodland Academy – the primary school that shares the building with Claremont – were listed. The new data that teachers like Cramer were asked to provide to their students was the result of a comprehensive lead study completed this spring.

Students were encouraged to pass on those handouts to their families, but Cramer says she hasn’t gotten much feedback.

“Honestly, we struggle to get a lot of parent engagement at Claremont, of no fault to the parents,” Cramer said. She makes a point to call families and guardians. “Our families of students aren’t necessarily empowered already to know how to navigate the school system and make their voices heard,” she added. 

“I think if this happened anywhere else, like where families are very involved, there would be uproar over this,” Cramer said. That struggle with engagement, she said, “allows us to continue being poorly managed, to the detriment of their students.”  

Cramer sees the management issue as one stemming primarily from the district level. “My principal, [Angela] Plant, I think she should have told us teachers… but this crisis isn’t on her,” she said. It’s District administrators, Cramer argued, that bear responsibility for finding a solution, since they conducted the testing. 

It’s not yet clear if any remediation plan exists to reduce lead contamination at Claremont Academy. The letter Cramer issued to students said that “[WPS] takes these results very seriously and is taking steps to address identified issues,” and that they are “working closely and cooperatively with MassDEP.” But that document does not provide any information about when or how lead remediation would take place.

That document does attempt to explain, however, how the water could have become contaminated. The district and MassDEP have ruled out a region-wide issue, noting that the Commonwealth’s reservoir system is closely monitored for lead, and is not contaminated. 

Instead, they suggest that lead enters drinking water “primarily by leaching from plumbing that contains lead,” whether it be lead piping or soldering within the building itself, or in a service line connecting it to a water main.  

Claremont Academy’s building, constructed originally as the Accelerated Learning Laboratory, is only 22 years old. It was completed in 2000 from an award-winning design by Lamoureux Pagano Associates, a Worcester architecture firm. 

Clark owns two buildings across the street from Claremont, the Norcross Houses, home to the Marsh Institute and the Kasperson Library.   

Cramer said her ideal solution would be to immediately have filling stations put in. At the very least, she argued, “there needs to be water bottles available for every student, at least one a day.”  

“Clean water is just a basic human right,” she added. “And our students at Claremont aren’t getting that.”

Staff Writer Jesse Lowe, a student in CYES 250, contributed to this report.

Principal Plant did not immediately respond to our request for comment.