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Power 'Is the Number One Problem' for Florida Schools Trying to Re-Open

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Broken windows. Leaking roofs. Flooded classrooms. Downed trees. No electricity.

That's some of what Florida school districts officials were seeing as many finally made their way onto school grounds Tuesday for their first close look at the damage from Hurricane Irma.

But the most significant and pressing problem for many school districts—as for many of Irma's victims in Florida—is the lack of electricity. Even if school buildings did not sustain extensive damage, some K-12 officials said they could not say with certainty when school will reopen open because large segments of their communities were still in the dark.

Fifty-five of the state's 67 K-12 school districts, including its virtual school district, remained closed on Wednesday.

"The power is the number one problem at this point," said Gregory K. Adkins, the superintendent of the Lee County school district, which includes the city of Fort Myers.

Lee County was spared a direct hit from Irma's second landfall on Sunday, but because the storm was so vast, the county still got heavy winds and rain.  

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than half of Lee County residents did not have power, and Florida Power & Light was estimating that power would not be fully restored to the state's west coast before Sept. 22, Adkins said.

"We are hoping that's a conservative estimate," he said.

That would throw a significant wrench in the district's plan to open next week, even if maintenance workers can haul away tree limbs and other debris that litter some campuses and repair some of the major damage.  

A preliminary assessment  did not reveal any major infrastructure damage, Adkins said. The wind picked up a covered walkway from one side of a high school and dropped it on the other side. There was some slight damage to the exterior of some of buildings. Bonita Springs High School was damaged by wind and debris, and portable classrooms were destroyed in the Three Oaks neighborhood, he said.

But, he said, "If you think about the sheer number of buildings [in the district] overall, it puts it into perspective."

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"They can get schools up and running by Monday," Adkins said of his maintenance staff. "Windows might be boarded up...There might be plans for alternative classrooms...But I believe that with the continued flooding and the power outages, it's going to be very, very difficult."

Some Schools Are Closed Indefinitely

In Broward County, schools are closed through the end of the week. In Monroe County—which covers the Florida Keys, where 90 percent of homes sustained some type of damage, according to ABC News—schools are closed indefinitely. Miami-Dade schools are also closed indefinitely. 

Orange County, which includes Orlando, is expected to open Friday, but that decision was subject to change Wednesday depending on what engineers and architects find when they conduct a more thorough review of school buildings and other facilities. 

With in-depth inspections still to come, it's hard to say what it would cost to repair the damage, officials said.

In Jacksonville, a Category 3 level storm surge sent more than three feet of water rushing through the streets of the city's downtown.

Patricia Willis, who heads the 129,000-student Duval County district, said at least one school, Hendricks Avenue Elementary in the San Marco neighborhood, had significant damage from the surge, with flood waters reaching nearly every single classroom.

"It's pretty much saturated throughout the building," Willis said. "That's one of the schools we are getting ready to give special attention."

Damage assessment teams, consisting of school police, security, and maintenance staff started going into schools on Tuesday. Principals were also asked to take a look at their buildings and file damage reports with their area superintendents, who will then forward them to the district's chief operating officer. An additional 80 maintenance workers—along with essential employees who work during emergencies—were called in Tuesday to help start getting the district ready for reopening, she said.

Things were starting to look up on Tuesday, giving Willis confidence that the district will make the planned Thursday reopening. On Monday afternoon, 80 percent of the schools did not have power. With the power company prioritizing schools, that percentage had dropped to 20 percent by Tuesday afternoon, she said. Still, flooding remained a concern, and Willis said she was hoping that the water would recede enough to allow school buses to get through.

"We are hoping that most of the water in the major routes will recede [by then] ..., and if we have to change some bus routes, we will," she said.

Figuring Out When to Re-Open

In Central Florida's Orange County, where officials spent countless hours last week tracking the course of the storm as it headed to Florida from the Caribbean, district officials are hoping to open on Friday.

Orange County is using the same kind of data-driven approach to guide its decision to reopen as it did to close before the storm. The school district had initially hoped to reopen Wednesday, but pushed back opening based on the initial assessment of its buildings and recovery efforts in the county.

As of the end of Tuesday, 66 schools had no power, 75 had some type of water damage, and 28 had damage to the roofs resulting in leaking.  Nearly 70 had fallen trees and other debris on campus, and 78 had no IT system connectivity, according to the district.

In addition to the buildings, the district also has to think about making sure students have meals when they get to school, and that the staff is there to teach and take care of them.

The food services program will have to go through its inventory, discard spoiled food, and restock meals for students. But some of the food service providers were also affected by the storm—meaning that they may not be able to get to the school on time to replenish the discarded items, according to Michael Eugene, the district's chief operating officer.  

With fallen trees and debris still clogging some roadways, school buses also may not be able to get through. And with a number of intersections without power, buses may have to be re-routed or stop for long periods to get through those intersections, causing further delays on the way to school.

While the district's internal staffing system showed that more than 75 percent of the employees in some departments were available to work on Wednesday or Thursday, the district decided to be cautious. It was possible that, given the nature of the storm, many employees did not officially file requests for leave, he said.

"What we are actually seeing in the data is a fairly low reporting of planned absences, and we think that's simply because families did not expect the storm to cause them to evacuate. We think that many that did evacuate had other priorities in mind than submitting something in the system," Eugene said.

And employees who evacuated may need a day or two to tend to their own homes and families before returning to school, he said.

Adkins, the superintendent in Lee County, said that while the state education department has been in contact with the districts and was working with them, he had not yet heard about any waivers or other flexibility for districts that were shuttered because of the storm.

"Our district, at minimum, will be out for seven days, and I expect it will go longer than that," he said.  "We are going to need some flexibility from the department of education. They have been accommodating."

Even in the midst of the disaster, superintendents heaped praise on their principals, teachers, and custodians, many of whom worked around the clock at shelters during the storm while their own homes and families were imperiled.

"I was truly amazed and humbled by the willingness of our staff to help," Adkins said. "They would go often hours without sleep, organizing, taking care of the evacuees who were in their schools, providing food, and shuttling food back and forth from one school to another to make sure that people in these shelters were taken care of."

"The way they were doing it—with a smile on their faces....That has been something that's been truly inspirational to see." 

Willis, who toured a shelter at Landmark Middle School in Jacksonville with Gov. Rick Scott on Monday, similarly said she was touched by the outpouring of kindness from her staff and the community.  

"I think that that human factor truly showed up," she said. "It's a kind of caring that you see—people come together at a time like this, and they realize that we are all part of one human race, and we all really do care for each other."

Captions:

1. Flooding at Gulf Middle School in Cape Coral, Fla., on Sept. 11, 2017. 

2. Damaged portable classrooms at Three Oaks Elementary School in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sept. 11, 2017.

(Photos courtesy of Lee County Schools in Fort Myers, Fla.) 

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