Texas schools ponder recovery after Hurricane Harvey

By Caitlin Emma, POLITICO

Southeast Texas school officials are just beginning to assess the damage from Hurricane Harvey after the storm closed schools or caused delays earlier this week for hundreds of thousands of students in about 200 public school districts and more than 40 charter schools.

Many schools won’t open until at least Sept. 5, according to the latest information from the Texas Education Agency. Some are delaying the start of school indefinitely until officials can accurately assess the damage. About 160 public and charter schools were closed as of Tuesday.

Much of the devastation has hit more than 215,000 students in Houston Independent School District. The majority of the district’s students are Hispanic or black and come from low-income families.

Thousands of students, teachers and administrators have lost their homes, said Superintendent Richard Carranza.

“Everything is in flux right now … It’s still raining and the watersheds are still rising,” he said.

While Houston is beginning to assess the damage, it’s still impossible to reach some of the schools due to flooding, Carranza said.

“We have almost 300 schools and about 35 of our sites have suffered water damage or lost power,” he said. There’s no estimate for how much the damage will cost, he said.

Carranza said he’s optimistic many schools will be able to open their doors soon after Labor Day, but district officials will likely decide later this week whether to further delay the start of the school year. They’re figuring out which schools can accommodate more students if some buildings need extensive and lengthy repairs, Carranza said.

Houston students will also need crisis counselors once classes start, Carranza said, and district officials are looking to neighboring districts for experts and services. They’re also looking for new clothes and school supplies — back-to-school purchases that were washed away for so many families, he said.

Then there’s the issue of getting hundreds of thousands of students and teachers back onto Houston’s roads and whether the city’s infrastructure is safe enough to handle all of the cars and the state’s largest fleet of school buses, Carranza said.

Houston Independent School District originally had some of its schools operating as shelters for displaced families. But the powerful storm, which has claimed more than a dozen lives, has dropped massive amounts of rain on Houston and caused major flooding. The schools have since been locked down and evacuated by the Army National Guard due to safety and accessibility concerns.

Some students and their families are now sheltering in Austin and San Antonio schools.

The public school district and Houston-area charter schools have set up donation pages to help families affected by the disaster.

“There is much work to be done in the coming days and weeks, but we are ready to support our students and families when they need us most,” said Sehba Ali, superintendent of KIPP Houston charter schools. “Our KIPP Houston community is resilient, and we come together to help each other.”

KIPP Houston noted in a statement that within 24 hours, more than 100 donations had poured into the charter school’s donation fund.

The federal Education Department on Tuesday said it was activating its “emergency response contact center” to help schools and students affected by Harvey. The agency said it was participating in daily briefings with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, and it has reached out to the Texas Education Agency.

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