Third grade teacher Erin Washington had just finished setting up her socially distanced classroom last week at Brentwood Elementary School in Lake Charles, La. Then she was ordered to evacuate for Hurricane Laura.
The storm hit the coasts of Louisiana and Texas today as a Category 4 hurricane, sweeping through Lake Charles in the early hours of the morning. The hurricane has weakened as it’s moved inland, but is still bringing dangerous winds. More than half a million people in the two states are without power.
Instead of starting school this week, Washington is now staying with family in a different part of the state. A new teacher, she graduated from college in December and spent only a few months working in the Calcasieu Parish schools last year, substitute teaching and supporting small group instruction, before the district shut down due to coronavirus. Monday was supposed to mark the start of her first year with a classroom of her own.
For teachers in the storm’s path, worries about their students’ safety and the possibility of flooded classrooms have added another layer of stress and uncertainty to a school year already upended by the coronavirus pandemic. And these Texas and Louisiana teachers aren’t alone—severe weather has also disrupted the start of school in parts of California, where more than 600 wildfires are burning across the state.
Washington, a Louisiana native, has weathered hurricanes before. But on top of the ongoing crisis over the past months, she said, this one is hard to bear. She spoke with Education Week about what the school year will look like for her now.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We got the notice [on Wednesday] to evacuate early, from our governor, John Bel Edwards. So that’s what I did. I have me and my cats—we evacuated, and we went back home to my hometown of Carencro, Louisiana, which is about 10 minutes outside of Lafayette, Louisiana.
Our first week of school is supposed to be the 24th, this week, after it was pushed back due to COVID. Everything has been pushed back, until hopefully next week, but we’re not sure what to expect, really, from Hurricane Laura.
I’m numb to all of this. I’ve been through hurricanes my entire life. Being in Louisiana, it’s a part of the culture to go through hurricanes from birth. To be able to deal with it as you get older, because you will have to go through one, survive through one, and learn to overcome it and get through it.
I’m expecting the worst. I’m expecting to not come home to anything. I just finished my classroom this week, prepping it for my kiddos to come in to see their classroom, to meet me. So I’m not expecting to come home to a classroom either.
I’ve been setting it up this entire summer. [I’ve spent] in the thousands, between myself and my mom. I’ve been saving up for my classroom since last year, so I had a few things, but I had to buy things that I retained in my classroom. So it was a lot of money to spend. A lot.
My mom had come with the plexiglass that was donated to my classroom. We installed that Friday. And then Sunday, we got the notice that the hurricane’s coming and that school’s canceled. So my entire classroom is prepped, ready to socially distance, for all 13 of my kids, all the supplies are still in there. It’s just a matter of the waiting game.
I contacted the parents last week, and I was able to get in contact with a few. But others’ phones weren’t working, or the parents were working, so the times conflicted with each other. My principal sent out automated voice messages to every phone, to every home, so the parents know what’s going on. And if they need assistance with anything they can call the school, or the school board.
I was ready for my first year. I mean, my first year as a teacher got trampled by the pandemic, then the hurricane season coming in, two hurricanes coming, right when school’s about to begin. I’m numb to everything, honestly. Just waiting to ride it out and hopefully not have as much damage, because that means I have to pay for a bunch of things where I don’t have the money to do so. It’s overwhelming. A lot of emotions at once.
Teachers need support. Especially during times like this. We can’t control what’s happening. We can only do what we’re trained to do and what we feel morally correct to do. We’re trying our best to please everyone, to make sure that we’re safe and our families are safe—the people that we have to go home to every night.
Photos courtesy of Erin Washington.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.