Schools Bounce Back From Storms

Hurricane Irma

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING THURSDAY OCT 26, 2017

A major hurricane disrupted school this fall, but leaders of the school districts say they also showed the value of the educational institutions to the entire community. “This really was leadership training,” says Manatee County Superintendent of Schools Diana Greene. 

From running schools as 24-hour shelter facilities to reworking the school schedule on a moment's notice to account for lost school days, district officials say that when Hurricane Irma passed through the region it tested resources but also proved the mettle of county school staff. Todd Bowden, Sarasota County Superintendent of Schools says certainly there were lessons learned and every disaster should better prepare the district for the next challenge. “People talk about going to ropes courses and escape rooms for team building,” Bowden says. “There’s no better team exercise than shelter management.” Bowden had teams in 14 schools running shelters, with administrators from multiple nearby campuses working in tandem. And he found a wide cross-section of individuals that needed to be in the shelters during the storm, from indigent care recipients to company executives.

In Manatee, the district ended up opening 25 schools as shelters, the last one opening in Lakewood Ranch just hours before the storm. Greene says staff had to account for everything from keeping restrooms operational to making sure television sets worked—for news reports and to entertain gathered children stuck in a shelter with none of their normal comforts.

Bowden says Sarasota was lucky school started a week earlier this year than in 2016, making it easier to deal with the loss of school time to meet requirements for the year. Sarasota schools program an extra half hour each day, making it possible to meet standards. “Kids are incredibly resilient,” Bowden says. “Two days after the schools opened at these shelter sites, it was business as usual. It’s amazing how quickly they got back to normal routines.” Manatee couldn’t do that, but has been making sure students meet benchmarks and progress required by the state to make up for lost time. 

But Greene says one of the biggest problems related to hurricanes still facing the district is actually new students displaced by other storms. The Manatee district has about 40 students from Puerto Rico who were displaced by Hurricane Maria, in addition to students from Key West, which took a direct hit from Irma, and even some from the Houston area, which got savaged earlier this year by Harvey. “As superintendent, I'm making sure we are sending letters to each student welcoming them to the district and trying to connect them to other services,” Greene says. Whether that’s counseling to deal with the trauma or working with a homeless program coordinator to find a permanent place to stay, schools are doing their best with the displaced individuals, while also figuring out how to adjust their own resources depending on whether students come here temporarily or move to the area for good.

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