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Schools wait — and prepare — as saltwater wedge moves slowly toward New Orleans

McDonogh 35 Senior High School in Gentilly on March 7, 2021.
Aubri Juhasz
School districts are building contingency plans in case approaching salt water makes the city's tap water unsafe to use. McDonogh 35 Senior High School in the city's Gentilly neighborhood — pictured here in March 2021 — could serve as a distribution site if the district needs to turn off pipes and supply schools with bottled water.

If the city’s water gets too salty, New Orleans’ public schools have a plan.

They’ll cover drinking fountains, disconnect water lines from cooking equipment and distribute bottled water to students and teachers.

What they won’t do is close schools.

“I have no expectation that we'll have to shift to any remote learning or anything of that nature,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Avis Williams said at a press conference Tuesday. “I do look at that as a worst-case scenario.”

Exactly which steps the district will need to take — and when — is still unclear, as city, state and federal agencies race to get ahead of the saltwater wedge slowly moving up the Mississippi River. The river is a major source of drinking water for communities in southeast Louisiana.

Affected parishes plan to deliver fresh water from upstream, by barge and newly laid pipeline, to mix with local water at treatment plants, diluting the salt to levels safe enough to treat.

The layer of salt water, which is heavier than fresh water and moving slowly north along the riverbed, is expected to reach New Orleans’ West Bank in about two weeks.

If efforts to dilute the salt are successful, the city’s water will remain drinkable, and the schools, along with the rest of the city, won’t have to make any changes.

But if they’re unable to reduce the salt to a level that’s safe to treat and drink, school leaders will need to take action.

Williams said the district is prepared to take steps to prevent building damage from the potential corrosive effects of salt water on pipes and machinery and bring in enough drinking water to keep schools running.

“We’re not trying to incite any panic or alarm,” she said. “Right now, it does look like there’s time for us to plan ahead of this.”

Some steps the district says it could take, if water isn’t safe to use, include:

  • Buying and distributing bottled water to schools
  • Disconnecting school kitchens from water lines
  • Changing lunch menus to rely on microwave-friendly and pre-packed foods
  • Purchasing reverse-osmosis systems to filter water in school kitchens
  • Monitoring heating and cooling systems to limit saltwater exposure, which can cause damage over time

Don LeDuff, the district’s chief operations officer, said some buildings — particularly older ones — are more vulnerable to damage from salt water than others.
For example, some buildings have systems that use more water to cool buildings, he said, which makes them more vulnerable to corrosion. As a result, some buildings may need to be disconnected from water lines sooner than others.

The district hasn’t made any changes yet, Williams said — and she hopes they won’t have to.

She said they’re paying close attention to data collected through evaluations of their buildings’ systems and taking their cues from city and state agencies.

Olin Parker, the school district’s board president, said he’s confident in the school system’s ability to respond.

“Frankly, and unfortunately, this is a district that has handled disasters well in the past,” he said, adding that this time, there’s a bright spot: The district actually has time to prepare.

Other districts respond

Williams said her district is working with school leaders in neighboring Jefferson Parish to coordinate their response.

Both plan to provide comprehensive guidelines on water usage to their schools.

New Orleans’ district is composed entirely of charter schools that operate with a lot of autonomy. Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish, the state’s largest public school system, is structured more traditionally, with just seven charter schools.

Schools in both parishes are expected to take similar preventative measures, according to a joint press release.

In St. Bernard Parish, the school system has purchased bottled water and will buy more as needed, said Sara Felt, the school district’s spokesperson. The district has already changed its food menu to accommodate possible water restrictions. Officials don’t plan to switch to remote classes but can if needed, she said.

The school district in Plaquemines Parish, which has already experienced water quality issues, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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