The devastation from Hurricane Ian has left schools shuttered indefinitely in parts of Florida, leaving storm-weary families anxious for word on when and how children can get back to classrooms.
As rescue and recovery operations continue in the storm’s aftermath, several school systems in hard-hit counties in southwestern Florida can’t say for sure when they’ll reopen. Some schools are without power and still assessing the damage, as well as the impact on staff members who may have lost homes or can't return to work.
Shuttered schools can worsen the hurricane's disruption for children. Recovery from natural disasters elsewhere suggests the effects on kids can be lasting, particularly in low-income communities that have a harder time bouncing back.
“In a week or two, we’ll have forgotten about Hurricane Ian. But these districts and schools and students will be struggling months and years later,” said Cassandra R. Davis, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina.
In Florida, 68 of 75 school districts are open for in-person instruction, and two more districts are expected to reopen this week, the state Department of Education said Tuesday. Among those still closed is Sarasota, where nearly half of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.
Abbie Tarr Trembley, a mother of four in Sarasota, said her youngest, a 9-year-old boy, asks each morning when he can go back to school.
“Every morning he’s like, ‘Mom, is it a school day? Is it a school day?’” she said. “Every morning, I’m almost in tears.”
The hurricane damaged the roof of her house, and the family lost power for three days. She was grateful to be spared worse. But she has begun to worry about the effects on her children and their education. Her son already repeated first grade to help him catch up from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Online learning recently has been an option for schools dealing with disasters from the coronavirus pandemic to hurricanes, but researchers have said overreliance on remote education is not sustainable.
Davis has studied how Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018 impacted student learning in the southeastern U.S. She said research shows elementary students continued to fall behind academically, as much as two years after a storm. But districts where parents are affluent and school budgets are healthy tend to recover more quickly.
Sarasota County school officials say they hope to reopen schools for some of their 45,000 students on Monday. School leaders are aiming to reopen buildings in the northern part of the county, which suffered less damage compared to the schools in the south.
In the meantime, students can use online resources students if they have access to the internet, Sarasota school officials said at a news conference. Florida’s education department did not respond to questions about its guidance to local school systems for addressing the missed school days.
Sarasota workers are ripping out and replacing carpets and drywall where water breached school buildings and discarding spoiled cafeteria food that went unrefrigerated in the days without electricity. For now, school officials said, standing water makes some streets unsafe for students and families to navigate. School leaders are also assessing which teachers and other staff won’t be able to return to work when schools reopen.
Two schools in the county have served as shelters for displaced residents and will close on Friday to give workers time to clean them before reopening Monday.
Schools in the southern part of the county will take “at least another week to reopen,” Superintendent Brennan Asplen told reporters Tuesday.
Trembley has heard rumors that when schools do start back up, it will be online. She hopes that is not the case. "There’s no way that I can assist a 9-year-old with schoolwork and continue my job,” said Trembley, who works at a general contractor’s office.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, some students faced displacement for a long time, up to five to six months until they were resettled, according to a study. There was a drop in test scores in that first year. “Not only do they have to move their home, but they’re even out of school for some time,” explained Bruce Sacerdote, a economist at Dartmouth College.
Sacerdote compared regions that are harder hit by Ian to a “mini-Katrina” and said students in the places where the hurricane did the most damage will likely see severe effects in the first year, especially if they are fully displaced and must move to another town or state.
“COVID was also a really severe disruption and imposed learning losses on these kids already,” he said. “It’s a double whammy for a lot of these kids. ...
“Remote (learning) is better than nothing," he said, "but it’s nowhere near as good as in person.”
Associated Press writers Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pa., and Michael Melia in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report. Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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