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Emphasis on safety in all grades

Fifth-grader Ciara D’Amico had her choice of three brands of bottled water yesterday at Eliot K-8 School in Boston. Fifth-grader Ciara D’Amico had her choice of three brands of bottled water yesterday at Eliot K-8 School in Boston. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Sarah Schweitzer and David Abel
Globe Staff / May 4, 2010

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Tens of thousands of Boston-area students, from kindergarteners to college seniors, returned to class yesterday to find water fountains covered, cafeteria menus limited, and warning signs everywhere.

As classes resumed across the region on the first school day in the three-day water crisis, schools reported no major hitches, ample drinking water supplies, and few panicked inquiries from parents.

Elementary school students got a real-life crash course in water-supply systems and the perils of dirty water. Administrators left little to chance, working a 12-hour day overseeing deliveries of water by the National Guard and the preparation of lunches made without the use of water. (Think chicken fingers, the variety that go directly from freezer to oven tray.)

Some college students sipped water sparingly, lest they bust their meager budgets on bottled water.

On campuses big and small, the everyday tasks of hydration and hand-washing were the stuff of warnings and strictures, with many students taking the water limitations with an equal measure of seriousness and aplomb.

Marcus Younge, 13, a sixth-grader at Eliot K-8 School in Boston’s North End, said he didn’t mind only using hand sanitizer to wash his hands, but he added, “I hope the water comes back on soon. . . . Having the water on is better.’’

For many young students, the water crisis had a familiar tone, reminiscent of the H1N1 outbreaks that brought hand-sanitizing liquid into their daily routine.

Behind the scenes, school officials labored to ensure student safety. Many had spent Sunday prepping schools, hanging signs warnings students to use hand sanitizer after washing their hands, shutting off water fountains, and attaching signs warning of the fountains’ danger. At Ambrose Elementary School in Winchester, one personalized appeal read: “Do Not Drink Water — Mr. Yuskus.’’ That would be Tommy Yuskus, the school’s custodian.

Wakefield Superintendent Joan Landers was among the ranks working over the weekend, meeting with town officials, sending e-mails to worried parents, and stocking her schools with water. She was back at it by 7:30 a.m. yesterday and in the late afternoon was coordinating another water delivery, overseeing the purchase of more hand sanitizer, and sending yet another missive to parents.

Meanwhile, Ben Sladowsky, Wakefield schools’ food service director, was mulling the next day’s lunch menu. There had been enough sliced meat for sandwiches for lunch yesterday. But there was not enough for another day’s lunch and there was no cutting more — the meat cutter requires special cleaning that cannot be performed without water. Chicken fingers, pizza made from frozen dough, and canned vegetables and canned fruit (requiring no rinsing) were more likely options.

At Eliot, parents donated about 40 cases of bottled water, adding to the school’s existing stockpile of bottled water. (The school uses bottled water instead of tap water because the school has no water fountains.)

Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy’s campus on Columbia Road in Dorchester had 10 cases of bottled water and extra hand sanitizer on hand when students arrived, delivered by the five-campus academy’s administration.

In schoolyards and parking lots, the talk of parents, too, was all water. Outside a Winchester elementary school, parents traded tips on where water is still for sale in town and coping mechanisms for tap-water-free existence with youngsters.

For college students, the water shortage has presented unusual challenges. Chief among them: getting through finals without readily available coffee.

“I wanted to cry,’’ said Amanda Weaver, 21, a psychology major at Simmons College, of entering a Starbucks that wasn’t selling coffee. “I have coffee twice a day. Now, I’m just really tired. It’s not good.’’

Buying water, too, has put a crimp in already stretched budgets.

“I’ve had to spend at least $15 on water at this point, and that’s really the last thing I would have wanted to spend my money on now,’’ said John Reese, 18, a freshman at Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Others are enduring lather-free existences.

Jill Campbell, a junior at Simmons, said she hasn’t showered in three days, even though none of officials’ advice included warnings about bathing. At Boston University, the kitchen sink was piled high with unwashed dishes in Christian Salerno’s apartment.

“It’s not too, too bad,’’ said Salerno, 20. “We keep the kitchen pretty well ventilated. But the heat over the weekend didn’t help.’’

Yet for all the inconveniences, the crisis brought moments of discovery, and even buoyant novelty.

At the Eliot K-8 School, students peppered teachers with questions about the water shortage.

One eighth-grade teacher asked whether there were any positive aspects of the crisis, said Rafael Henriquez, 14. Rafael said he responded that it was good for water-bottling companies. “Everyone is buying lots of water.’’

At Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, Sister Elaine Butcher wielded a squirt bottle of hand sanitizer for her charges, ranging from kindergarten through second grade, as they waited to go out for recess. “Well, it’s a little exciting,’’ she said.

A steady stream of students turned up in principal Claire Barton Sheridan’s office to refill their water bottles yesterday, probably more for fun than necessity, Sheridan suspected.

Maria Lambrianidis, a senior at Northeastern University, said the experience has made her appreciate the value of tap water. As a result, she vows to no longer leave the water running when brushing her teeth or washing her face and to take shorter showers.

“This has been a good learning experience,’’ she said.

Lisa Wangsness and James Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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