School Climate & Safety

More Openings Scheduled for School Districts Hit by Storm

By David J. Hoff — September 16, 2005 6 min read
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Districts recovering from Hurricane Katrina are getting ready to start the 2005-06 school year for a second time, with most of the storm-damaged Gulf Coast school systems planning to welcome students by mid-October.

While optimistic that they can open using portable classrooms and schools that survived the storm, they say they face a series of challenges in getting ready to accept students. Still, district leaders in Louisiana and Mississippi are determined to open schools as soon as possible, even if they don’t know how many of the more than 300,000 students displaced by the storm will eventually return for classes.

“We’re excited. We were only open for two weeks” before the hurricane battered the region in late August, said Rochelle M. Cancienne, a spokeswoman for the 9,600-student St. Charles Parish, La., public schools, which reopened Sept. 15. “It’s almost like starting over again.”

Even in New Orleans—where sections of the city remained flooded last week—officials said they would work to open as many schools as possible during the current school year.

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“If we open up a school and nobody’s there the first day,” said Sajan P. George, the interim chief operating officer for the New Orleans district, “it will be a sign to people … that they can bring their families back” to the city.

Despite their determination, education leaders still face obstacles that are beyond their control.

Hank M. Bounds, Mississippi’s state schools superintendent, expressed frustration last week that officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency hadn’t told the state when it would deliver hundreds of portable classrooms they have promised to Mississippi districts. Many districts affected by the hurricane won’t be able to resume classes without the portables.

But even routine tasks, such as planning bus routes, are difficult because many roads are littered with debris or remain impassable, one district chief said.

Traffic in southern Mississippi is so congested that it could be “a tremendous problem when we start moving children,” said Henry Arledge, the superintendent of the 13,300-student Harrison County school system, which hopes to reopen Oct. 3. “In two weeks,” he said, “they might have a lot more done than I realize.”

Looking Up

Hurricane Katrina hammered the New Orleans area and southern Mississippi beginning Aug. 29, leaving 11 school districts inoperable for the short term and two others closed indefinitely in both states. (“Their Buildings Took a Beating, Returning School Officials Find,” Sept. 14, 2005.)

Two Alabama school systems—66,900-student Mobile County and 26,500-student Baldwin County—reopened within two weeks after the hurricane.

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Last week, the 60,000-student New Orleans district was still unable to evaluate the damage to its 118 schools that were flooded when levees protecting the city broke in the wake of the storm. Only eight of New Orleans’ 126 public schools escaped with only minor damage from the storm’s winds, said Mr. George, who is a managing director of Alvarez & Marsal, the New York City crisis-management firm that was already working with the district before the storm hit.

The district hopes to reopen the eight buildings, none of which was flooded, during this school year. Mr. George said those schools might open before January, which officials previously had projected as the earliest any of the city’s schools would reopen.

Because officials have been unable to assess school damage in the city’s flooded areas, they don’t know if any of the others will be able to reopen in 2005-06.

“There are some schools that if, in our opinion, we can stand up quickly,” Mr. George said, “people can come back to them” during the current school year.

Earlier, Louisiana officials had suggested that all but the eight relatively unscathed schools in the city would be closed until the 2006-07 school year.

Officials in the 8,800-student St. Bernard Parish schools east of New Orleans are considering a plan to reopen in phases. Once they had a school ready, they would accommodate students there, then open other schools as residents return to the parish, the Louisiana equivalent of a county. But the district doesn’t expect all schools to reopen during 2005-06, district leaders announced last week on the Louisiana Department of Education’s Web site.

The 5,000-student Plaquemines Parish district hopes to open three schools on one campus in January, school leaders announced last week on the state Web site.

October Openings

Most other districts in the New Orleans area are working to welcome students next month.

The Jefferson Parish school system expects to open half of its 84 schools during the week of Oct. 3.

“Kids are going to trickle in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday” during the week, predicted Jeff Nowakowski, a spokesman for the 51,650-student district, south of New Orleans.

Along the Gulf Coast in southern Mississippi, most districts said they were trying to open by mid-October—even those whose school buildings were completely leveled by the storm. The 6,200-student Biloxi district is planning to open schools Sept. 26.

Even though the storm leveled three of the four schools in Pass Christian, leaders of that 2,000-student Mississippi district said they hoped to reopen as early as Oct. 3, using portable buildings. The plan is to create a village of portables on the grounds of the one school that remains.

“We’re starting from ground zero,” Superintendent Sue Matheson said the week after the storm. “We need everything. Our students need everything.”

The Harrison County district also will be able to receive students on Oct. 3, as long as FEMA delivers 36 portable buildings and the school buses can navigate roads, Mr. Arledge said.

FEMA officials have told Mr. Arledge and other school leaders that the federal agency would pay for the rebuilding of schools and for temporary buildings. But Congress would need to appropriate separate federal funds to cover costs such as teaching displaced students attending schools throughout the country and to pay teachers who have been on administrative leave since the storm struck. Those funds would most likely be managed by the U.S. Department of Education or other federal agencies.

Who Will Return?

Mr. Bounds, the Mississippi state chief, is requesting a federal school-recovery package of more than $3 billion to cover staff-member salaries, school construction, and other related costs. Cecil J. Picard, his counterpart in Louisiana, is asking for $2.4 billion from the federal government to ensure teachers there don’t lose salaries or benefits due to closures.

Meanwhile, as administrators work to start operating their schools again, they’re not sure who will be walking through their doors when those days arrive.

News reports suggest that many displaced families are settling in cities throughout the South and well beyond, seeking permanent jobs and housing in the communities where they landed after evacuating their hometowns.

“Our biggest challenge is how many students will return,” said Paul A. Tisdale, the superintendent of the Biloxi schools. “I couldn’t tell you how many have left, or how many will return.”

As Louisiana’s St. Charles Parish district prepared to readmit students last week, officials there didn’t know how many of them would come back or whether students displaced from other districts would be enrolling, said Ms. Cancienne, the district’s spokeswoman.

The day before schools reopened, the district had enrolled 1,300 students, she said—just above 10 percent of its normal enrollment.

Mr. Nowakowski of the Jefferson Parish district said he hears many reports of people who don’t want to return.

“A lot of folks are saying that this is the one [storm] that has pushed them over the edge, and they don’t want to come back,” said Mr. Nowakowski, whose own home in New Orleans was flooded.

But Mr. Arledge, of Mississippi’s Harrison County schools, said that, while enrollment may be down in the short term, it may boom again as construction workers and others involved in rebuilding the region flock to the area for what could be a mammoth four- or five-year project.

Staff Writer Alan Richard contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as More Openings Scheduled for School Districts Hit by Storm

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