Education Week - October 11, 2017 - 6
Even as Schools Reopen, Storm Recovery Remains Painful
Fla., Texas educators
still face heavy lift
By Marva Hinton
& Corey Mitchell
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
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
Jesus Aranguren/AP Images for Education Week
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
"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."
An entrance to Marathon Middle High School in the central Florida Keys is choked with debris caused by Hurricane Irma. The school reopened on Sept. 27.
isn't there anymore. It's gone," said
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
6 | EDUCATION WEEK | October 11, 2017 | www.edweek.org
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, MiamiDade 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
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,"
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.