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Students’ safety

Most area schools plan to open, operate as usual

Changes made in food service

By Matt Byrne
Globe Correspondent / May 3, 2010

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Area school officials planned to open schools for classes this morning, but were taking precautions to comply with the region-wide order to boil water because of the massive pipe break over the weekend.

Schools in Boston and several suburban communities contacted yesterday all seemed to agree on a host of common practices to safeguard students:

Districts are shutting off or taping over water fountains with signs, removing food items that require water or washing from cafeterias, and providing hand sanitizer in bathrooms.

Many officials spent part of their weekend making preparations to open schools today. In Everett yesterday, plumbers went from school to school to shut off fountains, said Superintendent Frederick F. Foresteire. Some districts also sent out recorded messages, to reassure parents and, in some cases, advise them to send their children to school with extra bottles of water to alleviate stress on supplies.

At a news conference yesterday, Boston Superintendent Carol R. Johnson told students: “We expect to see you in school — on time — tomorrow.’’

About 80 percent of the city’s schools have hand sanitizer and bottled water already. Matthew Wilder, School Department spokesman, said officials are delivering bottled water to schools that do not already have it.

“We certainly have safeguards in place that will cause a minimal amount of disruption to schools, in terms of food service and things like that,’’ he said.

Many cafeterias use outside vendors that heat pre-made meals that do require water to prepare, thereby reducing the risk, he said.

Many parents called the city’s 24-hour hot line yesterday, and city staffers have reassured them that steps will be taken to protect students from untreated water, Wilder said.

“They are saying the same thing we’re saying: ‘Come to school tomorrow, and we’re ready to serve the children of our city.’’

The Archdiocese of Boston will open all schools regularly, but plans to take precautions in the approximately 48 schools located in the affected communities, said Terrence Donilon, secretary of communications for the archdiocese.

A formal plan outlining a list of precautions that were in line with other districts’ measures and was distributed last night to parents, teachers and principals.

Individual school officials have the option to close the school within the first two hours of the day today if they determine the school can’t properly comply with the requirements, the release said.

“We wouldn’t order a system-wide closure on this, because not all of our schools are impacted,’’ Donilon said. “We’ll take what ever guidance and advice the Department of Public Health provides.’’

For students, school cafeterias and food service stood as one of the more visible changes.

In Arlington, fruits and vegetables in need of washing will be removed from cafeteria menus. Officials there will also temporarily eliminate a salad bar that is usually offered at the middle and high schools, and will prepare a menu that does not require water, even avoiding boiled foods.

Some Arlington schools will switch to disposable serving trays and utensils to avoid any risk of exposing the reusable metal variety to contaminated water when they are washed, while others said they would treat washed items with bleach and rinse them with boiled water.

“The key things are the food service,’’ said Medford Superintendent Roy Belson. “We have prepared a menu that does not require water.’’

State education officials said they were reaching out to all day care centers, schools and universities and said they had not heard of any deciding to close.

Officials reached yesterday from the Arlington, Somerville, Brookline, Chelsea, Lexington, Medford, and Everett districts said schools will be open, and that they plan to take similar precautionary measures. Some were alerting the community via reverse 911 alert messages. A few asked parents to donate wipes and hand sanitizer.

In Arlington, some schools are advising teachers about how to discuss the water situation with younger children who may not fully understand the situation. Superintendent Kathleen Bodie spent part of her afternoon responding to inquiries and communicating with other school officials.

“In general you don’t want to overly alarm students,’’ Bodie said.

In Newton, school officials notified parents via a recorded phone call yesterday that schools would be open. But school officials asked parents to send their children off with two extra containers of drinks, and more if they are attended after school activities such as sports.

All water fountains will be turned off in the Newton schools, a school official said in a recorded message to parents yesterday. Food service will be provided.

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