Even before classes let out for the week in advance of Hurricane Ian, students peppered Zephyrhills High School principal Christina Stanley with questions about when they would get to return.
“Kids were asking if they will be back by Monday,” Stanley said, as she helped prepare Sunlake High in Land O’ Lakes as an evacuation shelter. “I told them I just don’t know.”
She recalled all too well the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017. Stanley was the newly appointed principal of Fivay High at the time and had to get the campus back online after it was packed with evacuees from flood-prone west Pasco County and their pets.
“We had to work on making sure everyone got home safely,” she recalled. “We had to make sure everything was cleaned — and this was pre-COVID — reset the rooms, resupply the toilet paper, the cafeterias. There’s a lot of work that goes in once the residents go home.”
It’s a message that needed reinforcing five years ago, after the skies cleared from Irma’s wrath. And it’s one that school officials hoped would resonate with parents and students this hurricane season, too, as they seek normalcy once the stormy weather subsides.
District leaders made clear they didn’t want to speculate on how bad Ian might be, or to come across as callous as families adjust to what might be life-altering events. But even before they started shelter operations, they were getting asked when kids could return.
At a media briefing Monday, Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis called for patience.
“We know that the forecast was for Wednesday and Thursday, for the storm to potentially have the greatest impacts,” Davis told reporters. “We will have rapid response teams where every one of our security, maintenance and principals will go to our facilities and determine whether or not we have a roof leak, do we have debris in the bus riding zone, in the car riding zone. Do we have power outages?”
The teams would make a decision only after having solid information in hand, he said. The district would like to get back to classes as early as Friday if possible, he said at the time. “But you never know the impact of a storm.”
That’s why the Pasco County school district’s messaging to parents and the public focused on the present, without predicting future actions, said district spokesperson Steve Hegarty.
“We’ve made it clear that people need to stay tuned,” Hegarty said. “What things look like over the weekend will determine what happens next.”
Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning said many factors will be at play, with cleanup being a key one.
“The shelters become very unclean,” he said.
During Irma, parents left diapers in desk drawers, people got sick on the floors, pets did their business inside the buildings and on the school grounds.
“At Fivay High School, after the storm we had a flea infestation we had to deal with,” Browning recalled. “We had to pressure wash and deep clean.”
That could happen only after all the evacuees left the buildings, something that might not occur as quickly as some might like. Browning noted that some people might not be able to get back home, with flooding among the key concerns.
The same flooding that keeps some residents in the shelters could also keep school buses and other vehicles away from schools, preventing them from reopening for classes. Browning said if that happens, there’s a possibility of relocating some schools temporarily to accessible campuses.
Power outages are another potential complication.
Staffing also must be a consideration, said Sunlake High acting principal Rebecca Jarke. Many employees are working long hours at shelters, Jarke said, while others might have evacuated and could face problems at their homes upon their return.
All that will become part of the calculus that school districts use. But first things first, Browning said.
“Let’s get through the storm,” he said. “Then we will assess the damage and determine when it’s safe to reopen.”
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.
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