The drought that has drained residential wells, turned farm fields to dust and depleted streams and reservoirs has extended its reach into school classrooms as well.
Two Carroll County elementary schools replaced drinking fountains with water coolers yesterday and served lunch on disposable trays to eliminate dish washing, after one school ran out of water twice this week and the other's well began kicking up mud and gravel.
Carroll officials are so concerned about possible well failures at these and other schools that they're looking into using portable bathrooms at schools without water - and they're forming plans to run schools on split shifts in the event that some buildings must temporarily close for lack of water.
"We're keeping an eye on our problem schools and on our other schools with well systems," said Raymond Prokop, Carroll schools' facilities director. "But there's nothing that says a few days of rain is going to solve this. How far are we going to go under these drought conditions and water restrictions? It's a question that nobody can answer."
Problems began less than five hours into the new school year at Winfield Elementary in southwest Carroll County, where one of the school's two wells was capped last fall after elevated levels of arsenic were found in the water. With a new well dug but not yet certified by the state and with area ground water levels at or near record lows, the school's water system could not keep up once classes began.
About 1:30 p.m. Monday, and again early Tuesday afternoon, toilets stopped flushing and faucet water slowed to a trickle. The water was turned off for about an hour so the pressure could build back up.
As Winfield's 3:45 p.m. dismissal approached, school and county health officials debated whether they should "attempt to make it through the end of the day or close school and send kids home early," Prokop said.
"At the same time, [plant maintenance supervisor] Jim Parker and his folks were down there trying to squeeze more water out of that rock."
Across the county, at Sandymount Elementary School in Finksburg, building supervisor Mike Risner was handling a routine replacement of the well's water filters Tuesday when he noticed sediment collecting - an early but serious indicator that the school's well was close to running dry.
Just as their Winfield counterparts had done, administrators at Sandymount made arrangements to use paper products and plastic utensils yesterday in the cafeteria. Water fountains were turned off and replaced with the plastic orange beverage coolers normally found on athletic fields. Students were given sanitary wipes for hand washing. And what little water the school has left was being reserved for toilet use.
"We're taking precautions in light of everything that's going on, and we decided it was better to be wise and conserve in hopes of preventing worse problems later," Assistant Principal Debbie Galovic said.
School staff also turned to less conventional methods.
"I think we all agreed [Tuesday] afternoon that we'd do rain dances," Galovic said, chuckling as she looked out her office window at the steady rain falling. "We're hopeful that this will last a couple days. I don't know how much of a difference it makes, but it's got to help."
Sandymount teachers also played a videotape during yesterday's lunch shifts as a reading comprehension exercise. They asked pupils to watch Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, listen for problems and relate the video to any problems the school might be having.
"Even the first-graders said, 'Yes, we know we're in a drought,'" Galovic said.
School officials' concern goes beyond the county's seven schools on well water.
Superintendent Charles I. Ecker issued water conservation guidelines for all 39 county schools this week, and his staff will work with the county health department to develop other steps the school system could take if well failures or water main breaks disrupt water flow at schools in the future.
Ecker said he would call for schools to operate on split schedules - where students from two schools share one building in half-day shifts - only as a last resort.
By 4:30 p.m. yesterday, most of Winfield's problems had been resolved. The Maryland Department of the Environment conditionally approved use of the new well for everything except drinking and food preparation. Carroll school and health officials expect to receive final approval for the well within a week.
Had the school run out of water again yesterday, Winfield would have been closed, said Charles Zeleski, the county's director of environmental health:
"The threshold would have been crossed because that would have meant that none of the things we were trying had worked to resolve the situation."
"With the situation occurring toward the end of the day, the only real problem that children experienced was not being able to flush toilets and the odors associated with that," he said.
"Since it was just for a short period before they could then go home and use the facilities at home, they didn't have to endure it for a very long period."
Children did not at all seem put out yesterday by the few changes at Winfield, where computer-printed posters across the drinking fountains, yellow caution placards outside bathrooms and pupils' frequent questions about whether they could flush toilets were the only obvious signs of any problem.
"School continues," Principal Rebecca Erdeljac said. "Students are getting to know each other. Teachers are busy assessing where kids are and creating reading groups. Everybody's involved in their academic subjects. ... We're functioning normally like a school, and we'll just continue doing that."