COVID-19: Some Baltimore Schools Not Providing Water for Returning Students and Teachers

Sparrows Point High and Middle School in Baltimore County, Maryland.

As students and teachers returned to the classroom at some Baltimore County Public Schools in Baltimore County, Maryland, they were told to prepare to not have access to any of the schools’ water fountains.

Prior to students’ return to class on March 1, parents and guardians from select BCPS schools received an email from the school district that stated, “Students can bring water bottles to school. Water fountains are closed, and water will not be available for purchase from the cafeteria.” 

School officials asked parents to remind students that if they brought water bottles to school, they could not use fountains to refill them while at school. The reasons for the policy were not explicit in the district’s statement, though some students and families assume its purpose is to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools. The district did not respond to requests for a comment.

Still, implementation has been met with confusion. 

“I was in shock,” said Julie Rewers, a 2013 alumnus of Sparrows Point High School. “Partly because of the issue itself and partly by the masses of parents and commenters that didn’t see it was an issue at all.”  

Rewers has a younger sister currently attending the same high school who found out about the water situation through a Facebook post. 

Not every school in BCPS will have restrictions on drinking water, though. Stephani Baldwin is the parent of a kindergartner who said her child’s school is allowing students to refill water bottles from water coolers spread throughout the building. 

Water coolers are not explicitly covered by the district’s water fountain policy, though the reasons why are not entirely clear. Still, Baldwin is happy her child will be able to drink water during the school day. 

“It is absolutely unacceptable for there to be no access to water,” Baldwin said. “I was lucky in that our school provided a solution. All schools should have access to this same solution.”

A study published in 2019 in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that children between the ages of 9 and 11 who were better hydrated during the school day were more successful at multitasking and retaining information. 

Because many schools in Baltimore County do not have air conditioning, students use the water fountains more frequently during the school day when the weather warms, Rewers said.

“I don’t understand how they expect children to sit six feet away from their friends, with a mask on, in a school with no A/C, and if you run out of water, too bad,” Rewers said. 

Schools in lower income parts of Baltimore already struggle with poor infrastructure, she said. 

“Water and food are not a luxury,” Rewers said. “I’m tired of people acting like they are.”

Though some schools may have water coolers students can use, many of these water coolers have not been cleaned or replaced in a year due to the pandemic. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has warned about legionella in stagnant water, especially in the wake of returning to school and office buildings after COVID-19 lockdowns. 

“I do not have a problem with sending my daughter to school with a bottle of water,” said Angela Sofinowski, a parent to a seventh grader and a high school librarian at BCPS. “I actually prefer she not use a water cooler as they have been stagnant for almost a year.” 

BCPS has a list of guiding principles included in their reopening plan on their website. Though water fountains are not explicitly addressed in the plan, the document does say that all students are responsible for bringing their own water bottles and that schools will not be providing water, even for student athletes. 

The reopening plan also states the school system will promote student health and safety while “maximizing learning.” Meeting that goal can be done a wide variety of ways, Sofinowski said.

“I think that [BCPS] can follow that guiding principle if the budget normally used for water coolers could be used for cases [of water bottles] that students could access from the school nurse or another central location,” she said.

In order to help students have access to water during the school day, Rewers is looking to donate cases of water bottles to the schools that need them. Her business, Cookies for a Cause — Maryland, sells cookies and uses part of the profits to donate to local charities. She has teamed up with Crossroads Bistro, another local restaurant, to collect donations to spend on cases of water for schools. 

District policy means that school administrators can still reject donated water, though. The prospect that a principal or other administrator would say no to donated water bottles frustrates Rewers. 

“[BCPS] needs to amend their return to the building policies and let the pending donations roll in,” she said. “The only alternative would be for them to provide the water themselves somehow, but that is obviously not going to happen.”

Rewers’ frustration has been echoed in her conversations with teachers. 

“I’ve had a few [teachers] reach out to their higher ups in their department and to the school board and receiving six different answers from six different people seems to be the norm,” she said. “I take COVID extremely seriously. I know that they make certain policies for certain reasons and BCPS can’t have any blood on their hands that they can control.”

For Sofinowski, she has prepared to work around the confusion, and try to take care of students as best as she can. 

“I will be bringing a hydro flask filled with ice and water as well as a case to refill or have if a student is in need,” she said.

As of the week of March 15, Rewers was allowed to start donating cases of water bottles to some Baltimore County and Baltimore City schools. As of March 31, she has donated around 400 cases of bottled water to eight different schools thanks to monetary donations from the local community.

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Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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