More than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, dropping more than 51 inches of rain in Houston and surrounding towns and leaving a swath of devastation across the southeastern part of state, the scope of the damage to K-12 schools is still unknown.
And it could be weeks before a full picture emerges of the total number of school buildings and property that were damaged or destroyed in the storm and how much it will cost to fix or replace them. Still, some staggering numbers were taking shape late last week. The damage to Houston’s sprawling system of public schools could hit $700 million, Superintendent Richard Carranza said. Students from nine schools will relocate to other schools, and three of those schools may not open this year, because of extensive damage, he said.
“Some parts of the state are back up and running, with minor damages; in some parts of the state, of course, it’s more severe,” said DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “I am not even sure you can get into Beaumont yet. Port Arthur is still under water. … It’s really hard to say.”
In some of the incorporated areas in Harris County, where Houston is located, lingering flood waters have made it difficult for workers to even get to all schools and other buildings to assess the extent of damage.
In some school communities, however, the storm’s devastation was heartbreakingly clear.
On the southwestern edge of Houston, in the Pasadena Independent School District, Superintendent DeeAnn Powell last week gathered her team of around 300 principals, assistant principals, and support staff in a high school cafeteria to talk through an extensive to-do list before they opened schools on Sept. 11. Three of the district’s 67 schools filled with water and one is unusable. Clean-up crews were set to work at the other two schools through the weekend in hopes of opening them by Monday.
But first, Powell talked about the district’s deepest loss: four siblings who drowned, along with their great-grandparents, as the family attempted to flee rising floodwaters in a van. The oldest brother and sister attended Pasadena High School. The younger siblings, a boy and a girl, had been students in the district’s Williams Elementary School.
The cafeteria filled with educators fell silent for several minutes.
Being flexible, Powell told the educators, and providing students with some sense of normalcy, were their top priorities in the day’s ahead.
“We need to have big hearts and use common sense,” she said.
As Texas’ districts tried to move on from Harvey last week, their counterparts in Florida were preparing for Hurricane Irma, a category 4 storm that had left a trail of devastation in the Caribbean and was expected to make landfall in the Sunshine State over the weekend.
Outside the Houston metropolitan region, entire school districts remained shuttered last week with spotty electricity and internet service, said Melissa Morin, who works in human resources and marketing for Education Service Center Region 2, a consortium of school districts that include Aransas County, Aransas Pass, Ingleside, Port Aransas, Taft, and Tuloso-Midway.
Superintendents and staff from some of those districts were working last week out of the consortium’s facility in Corpus Christi, Morin said.
Aransas County schools are closed “indefinitely,” Morin said. District leaders are still assessing the damage and cannot say with certainty when students would be able to return. In the interim, students have been enrolling in nearby districts and charter schools, she said.
Whether a district is ready to open depends on multiple factors beyond that of building conditions, said Danny Lovett, the executive director of Region 5, which covers a collection of school districts in the Beaumont area that enroll about 90,000 students.
Many of those same districts were hit hard by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008, he said. But the damage and disruption wrought by those storms have been superseded by that of Harvey.
“Someone asked the other day, ‘Is this your first time?’ ” and we said, ‘It’s not our first rodeo, but it’s probably the biggest bull we’ve ever tried to ride,’ ” he said.
Two districts, Deweyville and Bridge City, escaped major damage to their buildings, but the communities were decimated by flooding. In those cases, district officials still need to figure out where their students and families are, an especially difficult task, Lovett said. Transportation was a challenge for some districts, where buses were lost in flooding or drivers who evacuated haven’t returned, he said.
But even for the schools working to open last week, major uncertainty remained on how many students would be back to attend.
Houston’s network of KIPP charter schools—28 of them on 11 campuses across the city—re-opened last Thursday. While the charter network’s school buildings weathered the storm well, many of their families did not. Staff members had been scrambling to set up food pantries on every campus as one concrete way to assist families.
A day before students were set to return to KIPP Connect, an elementary school in southwestern Houston, it looked like someone had hit a pause button. Classrooms were freshly decorated. And desks were lined up for administering a test. Harvey’s arrival froze that moment.
Teachers there were bracing for students who might be sad, frightened, and confused.
“When they walk in, we don’t know what they’re walking through the doors with,” said Paige Cockrell, a 1st grade teacher there. “We want to talk about it, but we don’t want to dwell on it.”
Mounting Costs for Schools
While there are no firm estimates yet of how much it will cost the state of Texas and local districts to repair and replace Harvey-damaged schools, some officials said the price tag will be huge even after flood insurance payments come through.
Lovett, the executive director for a consortium of Beaumont-area districts, said for a school district, a 15 percent deductible on a flood insurance policy applies to every building that is damaged.
“That adds up to millions of dollars that—even though you had insurance—millions of dollars that aren’t covered,” he said.
In Houston, Superintendent Carranza said the district hopes that federal emergency funding, insurance payouts, and possibly state assistance will help cover the huge bill, which will include overtime, repairs, and recovery. For now, the district will co-locate students whose schools will not reopen with other campuses and relax some enrollment policies.
State officials are scrambling for ways to give districts flexibility and support as they start to recover.
Culbertson, from the Texas Education Agency, said that in the wake of the storm, the education department is looking to extend the Oct. 1 deadline that districts use to set their enrollment for the year. Districts will also use a “crisis code” to identify students who were displaced by Harvey so that the state can get an accurate count on the number of students who were displaced by the storm, she said.
District officials said the state has been responsive to their storm-related concerns, including by issuing waivers on missed school days and reminding districts that they are required by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act to enroll students who evacuated their homes because of the storm. Superintendents from affected areas also have daily conference calls with the state’s education commissioner.
School districts outside the disaster zone have offered to enroll students displaced by Harvey, mirroring 12 years earlier when Houston, Dallas, and other Texas districts took in nearly 50,000 students and thousands of teachers who were forced to flee New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
As of late last week, the Dallas school district had enrolled close to 100 students who were evacuated from storm-ravaged areas, including those who are staying at a shelter at the Dallas convention center and others who are staying with relatives, said Robyn Harris, a spokeswoman. The district is providing counseling services, as well as uniform assistance to students. Staff from the district’s counseling service, youth and family services, homeless education department, and health clinics have also visited families at the shelter, she said.
“We are continuing our efforts to provide resources for however long they will be here with us,” Harris said.
She also said the district is prepared to take as many students as necessary.
At Pasadena’s Thompson Intermediate School—which filled with six feet of water—industrial-sized dehumidifiers and fans whirred away last week while workers tore down drywall in the school’s hallways to disinfect the steel beams behind. Drenched furniture was piled into the centers of classrooms. Trophies won by students were perched on shelves in the school’s music room, just above the water line.
Principal Melissa Allen and some teachers, meanwhile, were sorting through a massive pile of desks and chairs. Little seemed salvageable.
Allen had been working round-the-clock to relocate students and teachers to another Pasadena district campus, nearly two miles from Thompson.
The stories she’d heard from students were haunting her.
“Stories of being trapped in their homes, and waiting to be saved … and hoping that they are going to survive, and these are my kids,” she said, her voice cracking. “They are 11, 12, and 13 years old and they’re trying to figure out, ‘Am I going to live through tonight because there’s water coming into my house and I don’t know what to do.’ ”
“I have kids that are going to come to my school next week and that’s the life that they will have lived a week and a half ago,” Allen continued. “We’re going to do everything that we can to support them through that.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Texas’ Educators Tally The Steep Costs of Harvey