There is no apparent, explicit policy on drinking water at the province’s largest English language school board. With a patchwork of practices, and schools blocking access to traditional water fountains and refillable bottle stations, there are hardly any touch-free devices to be found like the models unveiled at the English Montreal School Board head office with much fanfare years ago.
Some school cafeterias sell bottles, and some schools provide free bottles to students who request them – outside of a meal purchase. Some elementary schools have classrooms sinks and allow refilling with cups, but others have not adopted similar practices, with some parents saying their children have asked for water and been told there is none, and to rely on water bottles brought from home.
The Suburban surveyed 500-ml bottled water prices at two west-end grocery stores, two large retailers, and a home delivery service, with prices ranging from $0.10 to $0.45 apiece when purchased in 24- or 36-count cases. At least one EMSB cafeteria however, is selling these to students for $1.50 and begging the question: leaving aside single-use plastic concerns, is selling children bottled water at such high prices mid-pandemic while blocking access to water fountains appropriate?
The board has not yet responded to Suburban queries about the number and availability of water fountains in its network, as the issue of drinking water in schools has parents concerned, particularly those who hear of children paying for water bottles at enormous markups. At Royal Vale elementary and high school in NDG, Governing Board chair Andrea Batsis says after revelations about lead contamination in Montreal’s water pipes, the Governing Board was quick to address parents’ concerns regarding the drinking water in school and in getting certified filters installed in all fountains. Those fountains are now shut off owing to hygiene measures.
“Students bring their own filled bottles from home, as they have done in the past; if they run out and require more throughout the day, our teachers readily provide them with sealed bottled water.” Many schools also prohibit use of lockers, cubbies or keeping items under desks these days, so sending cases of water to be kept in class is a non-starter for families. One Secondary 4 student told The Suburban that she would probably pay for one because she is “too embarrassed to ask for a bottle if I ran out, or forgot it at home,” as she often does, adding it’s the first she heard that water was being given to those who need. Batsis says the board has requested that staff remind students that extra bottled water is available, as no child should be without water in the classroom. “Going forward, we are discussing the possibility of installing touchless water stations as a more sustainable alternative.”
EMSB independent Ward 2 commissioner Joe Lalla said in recent years the board has been replacing existing fountains with high-end models, making it easy to refill bottles, but there is no specific policy regarding the present situation with COVID-19. “Unfortunately, all water fountains are currently not in use as they are not hands-free.”
“No student will go without drinking water” he told The Suburban. “Students have always been encouraged to bring their water bottles, preferably re-usable ones. In the current COVID situation if a student forgets his water or runs out of water, the office will provide water.” Even while most would agree that like toilet paper, soap and heat, providing safe drinking water is a school obligation, he says “the cost of every school providing free water bottles every day would be enormous.” Lalla said prices are set annually but pledged to look into it. “I have asked the board to review the price of water bottles in view of the present circumstances.”
The Suburban will follow up on this story, including looking at what the policies and practices are in the French school network.