Harvey Forces More Than 220 District Closures as Damages Mount

By Benjamin Herold — August 29, 2017 6 min read
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By Benjamin Herold and Denisa Superville

Prayer, gratitude, and social media are what’s getting Texas elementary school principal Susan Brenz through the continued devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.

The hardest part, Brenz said in a phone interview from her home near Houston where she has been forced by flooding to shelter, is knowing that she’s one of the lucky ones, even as the rains continue and tornados threaten the vicinity.

“It is really challenging to mentally wrap your head around the fact that a large portion of our student body is without a home right now,” said Brenz, who leads Sadie Woodard Elementary in the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District.

Cy-Fair is one of 204 Texas school districts and 43 charter schools in the state have closed at some point this week following the devastation resulting from Hurricane Harvey, according to new figures released Tuesday afternoon by the Texas Education Agency. An additional 19 districts and 8 charter schools in neighboring Louisiana have closed in response to the storm, according to that state’s education department.

Nearly half of the affected Texas districts and charters will be closed at least through the rest of this week. Three school systems, including the Port Aransas Independent School District, right where Harvey made landfall Friday as a Category 4 storm with winds of up to 130 mph, are shuttered until further notice.

All of the Port Aransas district’s facilities were harmed by the storm, including some that sustained extensive damage, Superintendent Sharon McKinney posted on Facebook late Monday night.

“Due to safety concerns and the need for expert assessments, I’m asking that no one except designated personnel and contractors enter any school facility,” McKinney wrote.

Assessing Damage Will Take Time

The areas around Corpus Christi, which bore Harvey’s initial brunt, and Houston, where flooding has been severe, have seen the most widespread closures. All 51 school districts in the Houston region, plus 17 charter schools in the area, are currently closed through the end of the week.

Houston Superintendent Richard Carranza told multiple news outlets on Monday that roughly three dozen Houston school buildings had lost power or experienced flooding, with hundreds more yet to be assessed.

When all is said and done, Harvey—now a tropical storm that is making its way out of the Gulf Coast region and into Louisiana—is expected to have dropped about 50 inches of rain on the Houston area. The storm is “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Determining the full extent of the damage on the region and its schools will take weeks, if not months. The same goes for determining how many students are ultimately displaced and where they end up.

Early reports indicate that the Dallas and Austin school districts are among those expected to enroll students from affected areas who have been forced to leave their homes.

Robyn Harris, a spokeswoman for the Dallas district, said the district has designated three schools near the city’s convention center in dowtown Dallas in which children displaced by the storm could enroll. Those children will also be able to enroll at any district school, Harris said, and will be provided with mental health counselors, backpacks, and school supplies.

“We understand that a lot of them might be coming with just the shirts and their backs and the shoes on their feet,” she said. “It’s about Texans helping Texans. This is something that we have to do.”

In the meantime, districts in some of the immediately affected communities have opened schools as emergency shelters.

In Houston, though, the city’s office of emergency management requested Tuesday morning that the Houston ISD’s sites be closed due to “accessibility and safety concerns.” Evacuees were being sent to the city’s convention center and multiservice centers.

The HISD Foundation is currently accepting donations to help families affected by Harvey. The group is an independent nonprofit organization, with a board consisting of civic, business, and community leaders in the Houston area

A School in the Middle of a Lake

Photos and video from Woodard Elementary, where Susan Brenz is the principal, offer a window into the destruction.

Video: Overflowing water from Cypress Creek spills out onto school-zone roadways and the school lot surrounding Sadie Woodard Elementary in the Cypress Fairbanks school district near Houston.--Footage courtesy of Eric Milliren

As of Monday afternoon, the building was surrounded on all sides by water. Images provided by a teacher at the school showed the parking lot and basketball court to be completely flooded, with the school appearing as a small island in the middle of a large lake.

Back in 2015, when the building opened, Principal Brenz and others gushed to the Houston Chronicle about the “incredibly beautiful” facility and how it had been outfitted specifically to meet “21st century” demands.

Now, Cypress Fairbanks officials are asking staff to stay out of all school buildings, saying they first need to be assessed by police and other local agencies, Brenz said.

One key to riding out the storm, she said, has been social media. Brenz has been reaching out to families, students, and staff through a popular text-messaging-for schools service called Remind. Principals in the district are sharing ideas and words of encouragement through an app called Voxer. And school leaders from around the country have offered support through a Facebook group called Principals Helping Principals, Brenz said.

“People are doing absolutely everything they can do,” she said. “It helps to know that there are other people who are going through the exact same thing.”

‘Like Waiting for Water to Boil’

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday morning that it had activated its emergency response contact center in response to the fallout from Harvey. According to a statement, the department is working with the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to assess damage and needs. Federal education officials will also provide “administrative flexibilities related to federal student aid rules.”

But for now, uncertainty over what happens next—both in the short term and in the long term—rules the day.

For educators like Valentina Gonzalez, who works as a professional development specialist for English-language learners in a suburban district outside Houston, that’s causing considerable anxiety.

Her neighborhood has not completely flooded, Gonzalez said, but the Brazos River near her home is expected to crest in the coming days. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly when.

“We are just constantly watching the news,” she said. “It’s like waiting for water to boil.”

Photo: Waist-deep floodwaters spawned by Tropical Storm Harvey spill out onto school-zone roadways around Sadie Woodard Elementary School in Cypress, Texas.--Photo by Eric Milliren


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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.