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Florida Districts Damaged by Hurricane Michael Work to Reopen, Assess Damages

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Despite the widespread damage to schools in the Florida Panhandle from Hurricane Michael, district officials remained "laser-focused on reopening their schools as quickly as safely possible," the state's education commissioner said Monday. 

Commissioner Pam Stewart visited with school officials in hard-hit Gulf, Calhoun, and Jackson counties, and spoke with all of the superintendents from communities that were severely impacted by Hurricane Michael when it blew ashore as a Category 4 storm last week.

"While each is facing varying degrees of damage, the theme of our conversations was the same—hope and determination," Stewart said in a statement. "They are laser-focused on reopening their schools as quickly as safely possible, and we are assisting them in their efforts."

"There is an enormous amount of work ahead, and I am confident that Florida's school communities will be restored better than ever and that, with the ongoing support of fellow Floridians and Americans, our students and their families will thrive," Stewart continued.

As for any possible estimate of the damages the schools sustained, Stewart said it's too early to even guess. The department's staff will continue to work with districts in the hardest-hit areas, Stewart said.

"We know that it will be significant—perhaps historic like the storm itself—but it's too early to provide even ballpark figures as damage assessments are ongoing," she said. 

Districts in some of the hardest hit areas are unsure when they will reopen. In an update from Gov. Rick Scott's office on Monday, eight districts—Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty, and Washington—were all "closed until further notice."

Some schools in those counties are being used as shelters and distribution sites, but, in other cases, roads conditions and lack of electricity remained major hurdles.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited parts of the state, including Lynn Haven in Bay County, on Monday, and viewed the damages to Mexico Beach and Panama City by air, according to The Washington Post. The president and first lady were also expected to visit affected areas in Georgia.  

Hurricane Michael has been blamed for 17 deaths, in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, according to USA Today.  And as of Sunday, as many as 190,000 homes and businesses did not have electricity, The Washington Post reported, though power companies were working quickly to return power to customers.

The Leon County school district, which includes Tallahassee, welcomed back its students on Monday. The district said on Twitter that all schools were successfully reopened—the last schools received power on Sunday—and that there were only "minimal disruptions" to bus routes.

But in hard-hit Jackson County, which includes Marianna, the school district said in a press release posted Friday that it did not anticipate opening before Nov. 1.

The district was conducting a damage assessment of its schools, and so far all of the schools had some damage, some of them significant. The damage to its infrastructure was "extreme," the district said.

"While we will try our best to speed up the process of restoration, we want families to be prepared for students to have this extended time out of school," the district said. "If things move faster than anticipated, we will adjust this start date accordingly."

The district stressed that employees will be paid for the missed school days, and sent its best wishes to the community dealing with personal losses. 

"We stand with you in the recovery process," the district said. "We know that Jackson County will pull together and be strong in the aftermath of the storm."

And in Bay County, which includes Panama City and Mexico Beach, the district said it was working on a damage assessment, while sending out disaster teams to start repairs.

The district did not release a reopening date by Monday afternoon, but it posted an update saying that shared campuses were among the things that it was considering and that it would have more information later in the week about how that will work and which schools will be affected.

"We appreciate your patience and understanding," the district said. "We're told it typically takes communities devastated by storms 3-4 weeks to get schools up and running and we are still at 'plus six days' with a goal of being as quick as possible to restore infrastructure. Of course, we are dependent upon the restoration of power and water in our community as well as plans to get evacuated employees home and sheltered."

In a Facebook post on Sunday, the district said that it was "collecting information about online/consumable resources that may be available to students," and that it will have counseling and other activities at shelters. It was also working on reconnecting with staff members, many of whom had evacuated the area before the storm and did not have cellphone or internet service, the district said Sunday.

"We sincerely appreciate all of the messages of support and encouragement," the district said. "We can't reply to them all individually but we appreciate them and are sharing them with our team members who are working night and day to find our new normal."

Photo: The gymnasium and surrounding structures at Jinks Elementary School in Panama City, Fla., lie in ruins in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.  --Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser via AP

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