Schools may be open again in most parts of storm-ravaged Florida and Texas, but things are hardly back to normal as students and staff deal with cleanup, rebuilding, and the emotional disruption of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
Chris Garcia is in 11th grade at Marathon Middle High School, in the central Florida Keys, which reopened Sept. 27 after being shut down for 15 days because of Irma. The school is part of the Monroe County school district, which includes all of the hard-hit Keys.
“I’d rather, definitely, be in school,” said Chris, who said Irma dumped more than three feet of water inside his family’s home and ripped off part of the roof. The family rode out the storm with the teenager’s grandparents, who live in a concrete apartment building. They still haven’t been able to return home.
Though he’s glad to be back in class, the 16-year-old said keeping up with his schoolwork is much harder now.
“I’m used to being able to go home, go on my computer, check everything out,” said Garcia. “We still don’t even have Wi-Fi. It’s very different from our usual routines. I share a room now with my little brother. It’s a little harder to do my work.”
Felicity Rodriguez is in 8th grade at Marathon. Her family’s home backs up to a canal and was severely damaged during the storm. They’ve been staying in a hotel since they returned to the Keys after the storm, but the 13-year-old said she isn’t letting it get her down.
“I understand our situation, so I’m not going to complain,” Felicity said. “I know a lot of people are having it worse than me.”
At the same time, she said she was concerned that missing so much school would make it hard for her to keep up academically.
“I was scared that I wasn’t going to do good on my state tests because we were out for so long,” she said. “I was really worried.”
School officials are well aware of such concerns.
Principal Wendy McPherson said that when Marathon first reopened, the focus wasn’t really on academics. More than 15 staff members lost their homes in the storm, and McPherson’s home suffered damage from a collapsed ceiling and a palm tree that crashed through. The school surveyed the students on the first day back to determine what needs they had, so educators could best provide for them or direct them to community resources—nearly 150 of them were classified as homeless.
“We have students who no longer have a house—their house isn’t there anymore. It’s gone,” said McPherson.
Still, on that first day back, the school had an 85 percent attendance rate, a number McPherson said was higher than expected.
Chris Hayes teaches AP physics and honors physical science at Marathon. His family’s home took on 19 inches of water during Irma, but he calls himself lucky and said through all of this, he’s been impressed with the resilience of his students.
“I told every class that I had, every kid that I saw, that they were a leader in this community just because of their willingness to come back in here and try to get this ball rolling again,” said Hayes. “Those young people that are showing up here to go to school, I’m so proud of them just for being here every day.”
Although Marathon was in one of the hardest hit areas in the state, the school itself held up pretty well. It served as a shelter during the storm, but still experienced some flooding, and the campus grounds were full of storm debris.
On the first day back for faculty and staff, McPherson said she had to climb over more than two feet of muck and rotting seaweed just to get in the front door. The school’s athletic fields were also a mess, and land the school had planned to use for an additional sports field is being used by the city to store debris from the surrounding community.
Statewide, schools will have to deal with both the physical damage from the storm and the disruption to the academic calendar.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered all public schools in the state to close the Friday before Irma was set to make landfall and the Monday after to allow schools to be used as shelters and to give families time to prepare. But many schools were forced to close much longer. In the state’s two largest school districts, Miami-Dade and Broward County, students missed seven days primarily due to the loss of electricity and the use of many campuses as shelters.
Florida school officials also are girding for an influx of students displaced from Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, which devastated that island and shuttered a school system with some 700,000 students. Last week Scott announced that the state’s online school system would accept 20,000 affected students living either in Puerto Rico or in Florida.
Texas Districts Recovering
In Texas, two school districts—Aransas County and Port Aransas—remained closed more than a month after Hurricane Harvey hit and are not expected to open until mid-October.
In both places, the extended closures have raised concerns about the cost of rebuilding and the potential loss of state funding if enrollment drops.
The 520-student Port Aransas school district plans to resume classes Oct. 16, with children returning to portable classrooms after the storm laid waste to the district’s three school buildings.
Initial estimates have pegged that damage at between $10 and $12 million, though the number could rise, Superintendent Sharon McKinney said. That total includes the cost of replacing every roof and ceiling tile in the district and 80 percent of the floor tiles along with a major rebuild of the district’s athletic fields and facilities.
Students in the hardest-hit communities sought out schools in neighboring towns to register for classes.
To keep in touch with families and keep them informed about recovery plans, Port Aransas has relied on Facebook and constant online updates. Staff has also canvassed community events to get the word out about schools re-opening. Despite the efforts, McKinney estimates that enrollment in her district will drop by about 20 percent, with families relocating because many homes in town remain uninhabitable.
“Getting back together, whether it’s in a portable classroom or the regular building, is just going to be that ray of hope and a true kind of healing marker for our community,” McKinney said.
In the Aransas County Independent school district, staff are tentatively planning to begin classes Oct. 11, although at least one school remains out of commission. Bridget Johnson, the district’s human resources director, estimates that it will take at least a year to complete the work needed to re-open and completely refurbish each school.
While buildings remain under repair, the district is working to track down its 3,000 students, many of whom are attending classes in nearby districts. Instructions that spell out the re-enrollment process are placed prominently on the district’s website, along with construction and renovation updates.
“We have high hopes that our district will recover,” Johnson said.
Jimmy Kendrick, the mayor of Fulton, Texas, which is served by Aransas County’s schools, worries about the district’s long-term financial health in the wake of Harvey.
In Texas, school districts with greater property wealth share some of their revenue with school systems that don’t have as robust a property tax base. The Aransas County district, Kendrick said, has done that for many years, but expensive building repairs and uncertainty around how many residents will return to the community will make that a difficult prospect.
“The next two years will see all of this fluctuate, and so we’re going to feel the crunch from various sides on the issue, and insurance doesn’t pay for everything,” said Kendrick, who used to work in the school district. “Our first goal was to get people taken care of but now we’re starting to see the long-term effects more clearly.”
But questions linger even for districts that have re-opened buildings.
In the nearby Taft school district, Superintendent Jose Lopez estimates that about 95 percent of the district’s 1,100 students returned after the hurricane.
Work crews were able to dry out the district’s water-logged buildings in time for the re-start date, but there are still classrooms and cafeterias without flooring. Heating and cooling systems in several buildings remain on the fritz.
“We know that it’s going to be a long year,” Lopez said. “The work that has to take place in our district is not something that’s going to happen within a month.”
Staff Writer Francisco Vara-Orta contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Even as Schools Reopen, Storm Recovery Remains Painful