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Schools address water fountain restrictions


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Local conservancy district donates to meet need for drinking water

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have rippled to drinking water for K-12 students.

The Roswell Independent School District and other public school districts in Chaves County are following the recommendation of state officials in prohibiting students’ use of drinking fountains in their buildings to limit the spread of COVID-19.

For the Roswell district, the change could be a $4 million one, the amount the district has budgeted for bottled water for the academic year.

The district has decided to provide two bottles of water each day to students, one at breakfast and one at lunch, said Kim Meeks, director of student nutrition.

Right now, the district is serving about 350 pre-kindergarten and special needs students in school facilities. The New Mexico Public Education Department has said all public schools in the state can provide classroom instruction for these students now, provided only a small number of students meet at any one time.

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Eventually, the district could have more than 10,000 students back in school buildings, which is about the number that were enrolled for the 2019-2020 school year.

The Public Education Department is allowing districts in “green zone” counties in terms of COVID-19 positivity rates of 5% or lower to reopen gradually, with a combination of online and classroom learning. Students with greater needs would start back first, beginning with elementary grades, then middle school grades and then high school grades. Chaves County is in the “red zone,” with a 7.5% positivity rate.

The Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District became aware of the drinking water issue in southeastern New Mexico through media reports and decided to help meet the need of students in the district with the donation of 19.5 pallets, or about 65,520 bottles of water.

The water with a PVACD label is supplied by a company in Lubbock, Texas, and the district has distributed them at events as a way to increase awareness about the district.

“It is easy enough to tell everyone to bring a water bottle, but when they don’t, then what do you do?” said PVAC Superintendent Aron Balok. “Little Johnnie forgets his water bottle, you can’t make him go all day without a drink of water. Someone has to provide that water, and then there are kids who simply can’t afford bottled water. There is certainly a need.”

Balok and Water Resource Specialist Kelly James delivered water Monday and Tuesday to district offices and schools in Roswell, Artesia, Dexter, Hagerman and Lake Arthur.

Meeks said that PVACD donated about 24,000 bottles to the Roswell district, and she expressed her appreciation. “It was a very kind donation,” she said.

Meeks said another group previously had donated a couple of cases.

“This is going to be very expensive to provide water to all the students,” Meeks said.

In fact, the Roswell school district has budgeted $4 million for bottled water for the academic year, said Chad Cole, assistant superintendent for finance and operations. The actual amount is likely to be lower if the bulk of students do not return to school campuses for a while or if the situation involving the pandemic changes.

“We’re very grateful for PVACD’s donation and thoughtfulness,” Cole said. “In fact, as soon as the word got out about the need to remove access to school water fountains, as it relates to preventing the spread of COVID-19, PVACD was reaching out to the district to see how they might be able to help.”

Balok said he and James will consider coordinating future donations if other businesses or entities want to participate in the effort.

At Lake Arthur Municipal Schools, students are asked to provide their own water. Eventually, the school expects to have about 115 students back in its classrooms. The district received about 3,000 bottles from the conservancy district.

The district “will utilize this water for students who are participating in conditioning for athletics, as well as for students who may forget water for their in-person attendance,” said Superintendent Elisa Begueria.

The Dexter Consolidated Schools District has turned off its water fountains. It is encouraging students to bring their own water bottles and supplementing with bottled water, said Superintendent Lesa Dodd. She said that district schools received 140 cases of the donated water.

Ricky Williams, superintendent of Hagerman Municipal Schools, said his district also has restricted water fountain use and is working to secure more water donations. He received 3,360 bottles from PVACD, and he estimates that the district would need 150,718 bottles of water for the 179-day academic year if it intends to provide bottled water to students twice a day and if classroom instruction begins for a large number of students again soon.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.