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Houston Schools Closed All Week in Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

UPDATED

Catastrophic flooding and heavy rains have led Houston, the nation's sixth-largest school district, and several other area school districts to announce their closure for the rest of the week.

Officials in the Houston school district announced that its schools will be closed all this week and scheduled to open on Sept. 5, the day after Labor Day, after officials assess the damage from the storm.

Other districts like Alief ISD, which is located in southwest Houston, will be closed Monday and Tuesday.

Harvey-Gym-Rockport-blog (002).jpg

Cypress-Fairbanks, in northwest Houston, and Fort Bend, in Sugarland, will also close all week, along with Katy ISD and Spring Branch ISD. KIPP Houston will also close all week.

"School closure is never a decision we take lightly, but it is currently the best option for all our students and staff as we support those who have lost everything and ensure all buildings are safe for school," Cypress-Fairbanks Superintendent Mark Henry wrote in a message to the school community on Sunday.

Thousands in Aransas County, on the Gulf Coast, had no electricity on Monday.

Joseph Patek, the superintendent of the Aransas County school district, said the schools will be closed for the two next week weeks because county officials said it might take two to four weeks to restore power to residents and because the district needed time to repair damaged buildings. 

In the Houston school district, Superintendent Richard Carranza said schools in some flooded neighborhoods became the first option for refuge for displaced families over the weekend as the remnants of Hurricane Harvey moved into the Bayou City.

About 15 schools were opened over the weekend to accommodate families but by Monday's end, Carranza said all sites were expected to be closed and families transported to the city's convention center downtown where he said there are more resources to sustain people longer-term from space to hot meals.

"The community has been hit hard and there is still a lot of uncertainty over what will unfold in the next 48 to 72 hours," Carranza said via phone from Houston.

The school district that is the city's core serves about 216,000 students with 31,000 employees and has the largest transportation fleet for any Texas district. Many buses were dispatched to help with the rescue efforts but school officials aren't sure about the level of damage to campuses because many areas are still hard to reach because of floodwaters.

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"We're following the orders of local officials to have as few people on the roads as possible," Carranza said. "It is extremely challenging to be out there, and because of the intermittent rain the areas are prone to flooding very quickly within seconds or minutes."

Officials expect the rain from Harvey to end by Thursday, and hopefully then would allow for the district to get a better sense of how to handle reaching their goal of starting classes Sept. 5, the day after Labor Day. Originally, classes were slated to start Aug. 28.

Carranza said that the district had some time to best prepare for the storm in trying to mitigate damage through its emergency preparedness plan.

"You don't get that kind of warning with an earthquake, so we were at least able to station some folks at campuses to help put sandbags to keep water out and once the rain started, pump water out of campuses once it came in," he said. "So we think we mitigated some of the damage we would have seen otherwise."

Carranza said that some campuses may only have lost power and could reopen quickly, but others that may have mold damage could take longer.

The Houston metro area is home to about 17 school districts, but Carranza said those boundaries didn't mean much in the last 72 hours as each district is working across boundaries to help families in need, and on a conference call daily to compare notes on what to do next.

But his main concerns have been the impact on the students and employees and their families. He said the district is planning on bringing in crisis counselors to help students traumatized by the storm and what will be its still unclear aftermath once the water dries up. He also knows the adults have to be strong for the kids, so extending those services to any employees.

"They have lost everything and coming to work and expected to provide support and encouragement to students," Carranza said. "Even with the best emergency preparedness plans, the true impact of a situation of this magnitude is something that no one can really plan for."

Handling Displaced Students

In 2005, many districts, particularly the Houston school district, enrolled hundreds of students from New Orleans who fled the city after Hurricane Katrina and never returned. 

Federal officials said Sunday that storm recovery could take years. And the severity of damage in some residential areas might lead to long-term displacement for many students.

Such displacement, and the trauma associated with natural disasters, can have a disruptive effect on students, according the National Association of School Psychologists, which recommends schools take steps to establish a sense of calm and that parents and teachers encourage children to talk about the disaster in guided class discussions or in more-focused counseling if necessary. 

Schools should also be mindful of teachers and staff, who will likely be dealing with their own needs even as they undergo the emotional work of supporting students, the organization says in a guidance document on its website.

Schools can also help students adjust by identifying ways for them to keep in touch with displaced classmates, by providing opportunities for them to express their emotions through art and other means, and by helping connect families to community resources that may aid their recovery, the guidance says.

In Austin, where the schools were on a two-hour delay Monday, the school district's Delco Activity Center, a big gym-like structure where band performance and basketball games are held, was serving as an evacuation shelter. State officials "activated" the building as a shelter on Friday, and it began receiving evacuees that evening, said Anne Drabicky, a district spokeswoman.

The school district doesn't run the operation in Delco when something like this happens; it simply provides the building, she said. Other agencies are the in lead.

Bristel Minsker, a spokeswoman for the Central Texas Red Cross, which runs the operation, said close to 200 people stayed at Delco over the weekend, and are still there. They range in age from 5 weeks to 81 years old. All the evacuees are people who self-evacuated from along the Gulf Coast, especially around the areas of Bay City and Victoria, she said, and more are expected from Houston.

Red Cross staffers are reading books to children and playing games with them, and also showing cartoons from a big projector, Minsker said. "We're trying to make it as comfortable as we can in a scary situation," she said. Evacuees are getting three meals a day. There were no current plans for any of the children to attend classes in Austin ISD.

The National Weather Service said that more than 40 inches of rain has fallen in parts of Houston since Tropical Storm Harvey made its way to the city this weekend, and more than 20 inches are expected before the slow-moving storm makes it exit.

Harvey made landfall on Friday as a Category 4 hurricane near the coastal town of Rockport, Tex. The most recent storm had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Houston. Five deaths so far have been associated with the storm, according to the New York Times.

Photo captions: The basketball facility for Rockport High School in Rockport, Texas, lost most of its roof and walls after Hurricane Harvey tore through the town.

--Eric Gay/AP

Rescue boats fill a street in Houston on Aug. 28, as victims are evacuated from floodwaters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey.
--David J. Phillip/AP

Staff Writer Evie Blad, Data Specialist Francisco Vara-Orta, and Associate Editor Gewertz contributed to this blog post.


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