Returning To School After Hurricane Florence

Students and staff in Wilmington, NC—and throughout impacted areas of the Carolinas—are trying to get back to life as it was before the storm hit.

Nearly a month after Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas, life is just beginning to return to some sense of normalcy. Assessment of damage and calculating rebuilding costs continue, but whatever the final numbers, it is clear that recovery will be long and difficult. Some schools remain closed because of damage, with students and staff forced to relocate.

The city of Wilmington, NC, was particularly hard hit, at one point completely cut off from surrounding areas by flooding. The New Hanover County School District, which includes Wilmington schools, has worked hard to get kids back to class, if not back to normal. A look at just a few schools in the district shows the difficulty of moving on after a natural disaster such as this one. 

College Park Elementary School students and staff were already displaced before Florence hit. Their old school was demolished to make way for construction of a new one, which is scheduled to be completed this spring. In the meantime, the district bought an old church and staff turned it into a school. They were there last year and the first 10 days of this school year before Florence approached.

While the building wasn’t severely flooded, the water that did get in, combined with a loss of power for more than a week, and weather conditions, created a “humidity crisis” according to the school’s principal, Maria Madison.

“Mildew began to run rampant,” she says.

When staff got back in and assessed the situation, clean up was too expensive to make the effort worth it. The superintendent asked them to look at neighboring schools and see what could be done. The administrators at Castle Hayne Elementary School and Holly Shelter Middle School, which share a campus, opened their schools to the more than 450 College Park kids and 45 staff members.

Meanwhile, everything in the College Park library was boxed up and sent to restoration specialists. Media specialist Paula Neuherz can only hope some items are recoverable as she waits to hear about the impacted inventory, including every title in her 16,000-book collection.

“Any loose papers on [desks]...were a loss,” says Neuherz. “The teachers lost their lesson plans. I lost my lesson plans. I...did get someone in the county asking about library losses. I don’t really have that answer, and I maybe won’t for weeks to come.”

For now, she is focused on the teachers’ classrooms, funneling all book donations she has received to them.

“All of the teachers had their own libraries and a lot of them lost all...” she says. “We’ve been fortunate to allow the teachers to go through those books and rebuild their classroom collections and when we come back next week, the rest of those books are going to go into the hands of our children, who may have lost all their books at home. So many have lost everything.”

All photos courtesy Castle Hayne Elementary

To make the move to Castle Hayne, anything salvageable was loaded into trucks and brought over to the new location, where College Park will be until their new school is finished. Staff from area schools came out to help with the move.

"It was really heart-warming to watch—principals, administrators, they were all there sweating in the 90 degree heat to load and unload," says Neuherz. "It was a very special, tiring couple of days."

It wasn’t without disruption for the host school, staff and approximately 500 students. Castle Hayne fifth graders have been moved to a wing in the middle school, and fourth and fifth graders from College Park will also be at that facility. The College Park kindergarten through third grade students are in the Castle Hayne building. Everybody has doubled up, with two teachers co-teaching classrooms that now have about 40 kids. Arrival and departure schedules had to be coordinated, safety procedures put into place.

“We are in a phenomenal place with two great principals who have welcomed us,” says Madison. “We are so grateful.”

With everything in place, College Park students arrived at their new school on Monday Oct. 8. But just a few days later, New Hanover County schools were forced to close because of flooding fears from Hurricane Michael. That monstrous storm would not make a direct hit, but was going to cause trouble for the area's residents still trying to get back on their feet. Heading into the week, Madison and her staff—three of whom were displaced by the storm—just waited to see how many children return.

“We don’t know [the status of] the majority students,” Madison says. “We are a Title I school, 100 percent free and reduced lunch. We heard that a lot of families had to move. We are praying. A lot of our homes are apartment complexes and some of those were flooded and in one area families were evicted. But we are looking forward to seeing who shows up. From that point on, we will go and do some finding, try to find our children.”

Neuherz doesn’t expect College Park to be the only school down in enrollment.

“There’s probably going to be a lot of that across the district,” she says. “If your house was destroyed, it’s not going to be a one month thing. It’s going to be six months to a year. So they may end up having to move. We’d like to have them all come back here. That is the plan. We would love to have that, but it’s just not feasible for people who have lost everything.”

Even in the Wilmington schools where buildings weren’t too damaged, things are not back to normal. Lucy Wilcox found her library at Walter L. Parsley Elementary School “surprisingly intact.” The trailer classrooms used for the school, however, were destroyed, so Wilcox was forced to give up her library space to be used by classroom teachers for four to six weeks.

“From what I hear, this is a common situation across the district,” Wilcox says. “Many librarians will be teaching in the classrooms and working in checkout wherever we can.”

At Castle Hayne/College Park, they will be focused on mental health as much as resuming curriculum.

“Our superintendent said, 'I don’t care if you don’t teach a standard for a month when the kids come back, just make sure they are socially and emotionally ready,'” says Madison, who has an SEL program in place and ready to be implemented by staff. “As principal, I’m worried about my staff. Several members of my staff spent days in the shelter and saw things they’d never heard of. So I’m worried about my staff’s social and emotional wellbeing as well. I’m encouraging my staff to take care of themselves, because if they can’t take care of themselves it’s going to be difficult to take care of the children.”

Neuherz finds a way to focus on the positive that has come from a terrible situation.

“I think everybody in the city of Wilmington and surrounding area will tell you, out of this disaster rose such a sense of community, just everybody willing to lend a hand, it’s just been phenomenal,” she says. “The outpouring of love and help has been tremendous, so now we need to turn our focus to the children and make sure they’re adjusted and healthy and happy and know that they're loved. That’s our job going forward.”

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To help victims of the storm: https://emergency.nhcgov.com/donations-volunteering/.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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