If getting back into a well-worn routine can help ease the pain of a devastating flood, of damaged and destroyed homes and 10 school days lost because of high water and washed out roads, then Monday’s return to school for more than 8,000 LCPS students added a fourth ‘R’ to reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic. That ‘R’ would be recovery.
At many schools, the day looked like any Monday after any other weekend, but the significance of it wasn’t lost on either staff or student. “I thought the kids were glad to be back this morning,” Rhonda Greene, principal at Contentnea-Savannah K-8 School, said. “When we greeted them, they sounded like they were really excited to be here. That’s not always the case on a Monday.”
With a start time two hours later than usual, school buses were generally able to navigate redesigned routes around closed roads and reach most students relocated by the storm — a success made more impressive by the fact the district’s Transportation Department site on NC 11 was flooded and its offices had to be relocated to the far side of Kinston, at Teacher’s Memorial School and Training Center. More than 70 percent of LCPS students get to school by bus, and Cindy Bruner of the Transportation Department could only laugh when asked how many bus routes were reconfigured.
More were than weren’t so buses could navigate throughout a county with 14 roads closed for the long term, with another 40 or so roads needing repairs and with students still living in a Red Cross shelter and in hotels. “We were able to navigate the road closures and pick up children from the shelter at Lenoir Community College and the Holiday Inn Express,” Bruner said Tuesday. “Today we’re trying to take care of children who have been placed by FEMA in hotels in Goldsboro and Greenville.”
Hurricane Matthew and the flooding that followed its high winds and gully-washing rain on Oct. 8 resulted in the displacement of scores of students and staff members at least temporarily. For a week or more before school reopened, school staff and administrators tried to make contact with an many students as they could reach in order to ascertain their circumstances and to help coordinate transportation. On Monday, some students were still living out of town, others were living with relatives and others were still at home — but cut off from school because of road problems.
“We had one family we couldn’t reach because of the roads,” Pink Hill Elementary School principal Lee Ann Hardy said, “but we have contacted them and arranged for transportation. We learned of another student who was living in a rental home that was damaged, had to move and couldn’t get to school; and we did pick up one student from a city school who’s living with grandparents temporarily.”
At one time during the flooding, Moss Hill Elementary School on NC 55 in western Lenoir County was a virtual island, isolated from the rest of the county. Principal Stacy Cauley counts 42 of her students — nearly 10 percent of the school’s membership — as significantly affected by the flood.
“We do have a lot of displaced families,” she said Monday. “The office was full this morning for several hours with parents coming in, explaining their situation, wanting to work out transportation. We do have several students who are going to be picked up in different places. We still have a family in the shelter, still have a family in the Holiday Inn and we have a family in Goldsboro.”
The ultimate impact of that displacement on the district’s student membership won’t be known for a while, but the unexpected and unwelcome two-week absence from school did not have a striking effect on overall attendance Monday. The absentee rate throughout the district was 6.6 percent — a little higher than an average day but about average for a day with a delayed start. Individual school attendance numbers, however, could be used to map the flood’s destruction. Schools in the hardest hit sections in the south of the county saw fewer children — 88 percent attendance at Moss Hill and 89 percent at Woodington Middle, for example — and schools in lightly affected areas had a much better turnout. At Banks Elementary in northwestern Lenoir County, attendance was 95 percent; at E.B. Frink Middle School in La Grange, it was 97 percent.
Data managers at each of the district’s 17 schools will be tracking attendance closely for day-to-day comparisons and are working as a unit to build and populate a database to identify displaced students and their families to ensure their needs are met until their situations become stable.
The good news for the school district itself is that its buildings, with the exception of the Transportation Department office and garage, came through the flood relatively unscathed. The bad news is that the storm and its aftermath scrambled the carefully plotted out calendar for the 2016-2017 school year. How many of the 10 days lost will have to be made up remains unknown now. Gov. Pat McCrory has asked the General Assembly to consider excusing at least some of them during a special legislative session in December. Until then, he’s asked public school districts to hold off on calendar revisions. Expecting some days will have to be made up, however, LCPS altered the schedule a little this week — turning the half-day Thursday and the students’ day off on Friday into regular school days — with permission of Gov. McCrory’s office.
Superintendent Brent Williams has assured teachers and administrators that those lost days — as well as all the special events and professional development sessions wiped off the calendar by high water — will be addressed in their own time. As for the first day back after a traumatic absence, he encouraged principals and staffs to use Monday as “a day of reflection as students talk about their experiences, a time to let them readjust to the school schedule and to assess their circumstances.”
On Monday, teachers were undoubtedly more focused on showing supporting for and empathy with their students than in getting back to that science or language art lesson from Oct. 7. As Banks principal Kellan Bryant wrote in a email message to her teachers on Saturday, as everyone prepared to return to school: “I know you are all as eager as I am to see our students! Some days it’s more important to just be there and make their lives at school a pleasant experience.”
And something approaching normal.