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Students at Lincoln Public Schools, Southeast Community College and those remaining on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus during spring break are dining on disposable dishes this week.

That's one of the ways the institutions are reducing water use to comply with the city’s mandatory water restrictions announced Sunday night after record flooding on the Platte River near Ashland threatened the city’s wellfields.

At UNL, the task was made easier by the weeklong spring break that began Monday, reducing the number of students living on campus from 6,000 to about 400.

Some of those 400 are students who stuck around because flooding made it impossible for them to get home, UNL officials said.

And the challenges facing schools in Lincoln were nothing compared to those in communities devastated by floodwaters.

In North Bend, March 12 was the last day the district’s 620 students had class, the same day city officials realized flooding was imminent.

By late Friday morning, water breached a levy and most residents had evacuated.

“In a matter of minutes, the Platte River and Shell Creek decided to come to North Bend,” Superintendent Dan Endorf said. "I grew up in Tobias, where we seemingly have a drought every year, so this is foreign to me."

Endorf's high school became a command center, and the volunteer fire department took up residence in a gym after floodwaters submerged the station.

“The idea of school is a distant one,” he said. “Our parking lot is full of school buses, airboats, semi trucks and emergency vehicles. It’s quite a sight to behold.”

The gym not being occupied by firefighters is full of donated items.

“The outpouring from the community near and far is breathtaking,” he said.

In Fremont, when water began flooding South Broad Street early Friday, spring break had just started for the public schools, and it will continue all week, said Hope Pierce, communications coordinator for the district.

When flooding forced the closing of nearly all roads in and out of Fremont, an elementary school became a distribution and volunteer coordination center.

A shelter was set up in the middle-school gym and Monday, school lunch employees fired up the ovens to make food for those remaining there, Pierce said.

Peru State College closed its campus Monday and Tuesday to conserve water, sending about 800 students who either live on campus or attend classes in Peru home, said Communications Director Jason Hogue. Campus officials haven’t made a decision about whether to hold classes Wednesday.

In Lincoln, school officials acknowledged how fortunate they’d been, and outlined how they’re trying to conserve water. 

At LPS, where students returned Monday after a week of spring break, teachers talked to students about reducing their water use.

"This an opportunity for Lincoln Public Schools to lead the way in resourceful and appropriate water conservation," an email to parents said.

LPS typically uses about 200,000 gallons of water a day this time of year, said Operations Director Scott Wieskamp.

Nearly all the district’s heating and cooling systems are geothermal systems, which use ground wells to heat and cool water. Those systems are unaffected, Wieskamp said, because they are “closed loop” systems, which means they don’t take in new water or dump out water.

Both SCC and LPS will hold off washing buses and maintenance vehicles.

LPS will bring in hand sanitizer for students and staff to help reduce the need for washing hands, Wieskamp said.

Elementary school students will use compostable trays made out of plant material the schools keep on hand in case the dishwashers break, as well as plastic silverware, said LPS Nutrition Services Director Edith Zumwalt.

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Middle-school and high school students already use disposable dishes, she said. The district will get an additional 750 cases of disposable trays the supplier had in stock, she said.

She estimates they’ll go through about 312 cases this week — nearly 75,000 individual trays.

Other cafeteria trays will be cleaned with sanitary wipes rather than run through the dishwasher, Zumwalt said, a practice approved by the Lancaster County Health Department.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the federal school lunch program, requires schools to offer water with lunch. This week, schools will have kids drink directly from the fountains rather than fill glasses, hoping they use less water.

Other conservation efforts by SCC include minimizing laundry, and using sanitizing products to clean when possible.

At UNL's campus recreation facilities, officials are encouraging the use of bottled water and asking users to limit showers; they will limit laundry services and reduce campus greenhouse water use as much as possible.

UNL officials also will lower the temperatures in vacant classrooms to reduce requirements for steam heat.

In North Bend — where many teachers and other staff members who had to evacuate remain many miles away, where access in and out of town remained limited and the water supply was in question — the superintendent was optimistic.

“If the weather holds and the levies are repaired, as I’m sure they will be, I believe we can function as a school in short order — even as soon as later this week.”

Nebraska flooding photos and video:

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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