LUMBERTON — Administrators with the Public Schools of Robeson County, once again challenged by massive flooding from a hurricane, are working toward establishing “a sense of normalcy.”
According to information provided by Superintendent Shanita Wooten, only one school suffered flood damage, and that was W.H. Knuckles Elementary in South Lumberton, but 16 more were without power on Thursday.
“Once accessible, all efforts will be made to make it operable and habitable as quickly as possible,” Wooten said in a statement while speaking of W.H. Knuckles.
Six schools, Lumberton High, Purnell Swett High, St. Pauls High, Red Springs High, South Robeson High, and Fairmont Middle, are being used as shelters, and students cannot be returned to those campuses until the evacuees are gone.
School is out until further notice.
“In a similar manner to the procedures that occurred after Hurricane Matthew, the school system will test the air quality and perform environmental checks at the needed schools to ensure that our students return to the safest environment possible,” Wooten said. “Some things that may delay the opening of school are: widespread power outages, significant damages to schools, displaced staff and students, and damages to roads throughout the county. Also, some PSRC schools were used as evacuation centers for those fleeing the coast and in low-lying, flood-prone local areas of Robeson County.”
As with Matthew, the initial stage of the recovery will have to be done without a central office, as the system’s building on Kahn Drive was flooded.
Wooten said the system has flood insurance to cover losses, and that the owner of the building, Steve Branch, has said that the building will be repaired and ready for staff to move back in within a month and at no charge to the district.
The statement said the central office facility located on Kenric Drive that houses transportation, technology, testing, and Powerschool also flooded.
Wooten said she has been in “constant communication” with state Superintendent Mark Johnson and Deputy Superintendent Eric Hall, and is gathering information to present to the state board “in terms of waivers and specific requests for flexibility as the district recovers from Hurricane Florence. “
State law requires 185 days of school or 1,025 hours of instruction per year. Those requirements were waived for the local system following Matthew.
“We remain hopeful because N.C. Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson and House Speaker Tim Moore have said they hope to exempt school districts that were hit hard by Hurricane Florence from the state’s calendar requirements,” Wooten said. “That would mean schools likely to be closed for weeks wouldn’t have to schedule as many make-up days, which sometimes extend the school year into mid-June and on Saturdays.”
Wooten said the system will look toward Raleigh and Washington, D.C., for infrastructure help.
“The school system will also likely need additional state aid to help repair school buildings when insurance and federal disaster funds fall short of the costs,” she said. “Enrollment for the district declined after Hurricane Matthew because families left the area after they lost homes, businesses, or both. The same is expected during the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. The district will ask the state to keep its funding constant for a year or longer to prevent a loss of revenue from any drop in enrollment that would wreak havoc with an already strained budget.”
Wooten said, unlike during Matthew, when the flooding was unexpected and unprecedented, this time the system was able to plan and prepare for the worst.
”An emergency management team comprised of district-level supervisors and principals was formed and met during the days leading up to the storm,” she said. “The team allowed for the essential personnel from each department in the school system to identify the areas of concern and proactive measures that needed to be taken to lessen the impact felt. Some of the proactive measures included: moving all important devices and records to higher ground, relocating district vehicles … . This preparation minimized the amount of damage that the district suffered.
“Throughout the storm, district employees assisted in various ways to help in the effort. The team met with Robeson County emergency personnel at the Emergency Operations Center to clarify their role of support. Five schools served as shelters during the storm. Maintenance employees equipped the schools with generators and fuel, while Child Nutrition staff stocked all sites with food to provide meals to those who were placed in shelters.
”As shelters were opened across the county, team members communicated with the Department of Social Services and the American Red Cross to initially staff the shelter and enlist the services of the superintendent, senior leaders, respective school administrators, custodians, child nutrition employees, and various other support staff to make them operable. Bus drivers volunteered their services to make sure evacuees were transported safely.”
She said when the skies turned blue, the system began the next phase.
“When the weather allowed for personnel to travel in a safe manner, the recovery plan that was created prior to the storm was activated. District personnel attended briefings at the Emergency Operations Center for updates regarding the status of Robeson County, while school employees, transportation and maintenance staff began assessing the roads and the buildings to ensure that the students and staff are able to return safely. Additionally, the Maintenance Department gathered assessments from each school and dispatched teams to mediate damages during the storm to minimize repairs needed after the storm.”
Wooten said the system will provide supports to students and parents in the interim.
“Our guidance counselors, school nurses, social workers, and ESL coordinators are beginning to make contact with all of our displaced students and their families,” she said. “We are coordinating with county officials regarding a joint collection and distribution center for donated items. County officials are asking that the items be new and unused. Additionally, there will be a distribution site set up for a later date for school supplies and book bags to support our students.”
Editor Donnie Douglas can be reached at 910-416-5649 or [email protected]