Schools across Houston and parts of Texas’ Gulf Coast will remain shuttered through Labor Day – and probably much longer – because their buildings and surrounding infrastructure will require extensive repairs even after Harvey’s unprecedented floodwaters subside.
The 216,000 students in the Houston Independent School District, the largest in Texas and seventh-largest in the nation, were supposed to start classes this past Monday. Instead, many fled homes flooded by the storm.
Harvey roared ashore last week as a Category 4 hurricane and damaged school buildings in many coastal towns before unleashing unprecedented rainfall on much of a 200-mile swath of Texas stretching north to Houston.
More than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide canceled or delayed classes. It remains unclear when many could fully resume since ongoing flooding has made it impossible for officials to get a complete assessment of the damage.
“We’ll still have districts next week that can’t open and we know that,” said Lauren Callahan, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.
Other major storms around the country have kept schools closed for extended periods.
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York City’s public schools closed for a week, then opened to find heat and cafeteria facilities not working on some campuses and others continuing to be occupied by storm evacuees.
Following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005, it was months before even a few public schools reopened. Of the city district’s roughly 125 schools, fewer than 20 escaped largely undamaged. So many people fled that district officials urged parents to enroll their children in schools close to where they were evacuated – including thousands transplanted to Houston – rather than trying to return.
New Orleans public schools had around 60,000 students before Katrina but only about 12,000 were enrolled by the end of the school year. The University of Tulane’s stately New Orleans campus also closed for moths for the first time since the Civil War.
In Texas, the Gulf Coast beach town of Rockport took a direct hit when Harvey made landfall and buildings on its high school campus sustained damage. Football and volleyball players came out Tuesday to help with the cleanup of their school. In the town of Seadrift, about 30 miles north, the K-8 school is closed indefinitely due to extensive damage. Other schools around the state won’t reopen until officials check more fully on their conditions.
Houston Superintendent Richard Carranza said 35 of his district’s almost 300 school buildings were flooded or lost power. Some are inaccessible because roads are still flooded.
“This city is in a lot of pain right now. We want to get back as soon possible,” Carranza said by phone. He said that, by Friday, he hopes to “make a decision on whether we are going to need to extend the delay of the school year.”
“We just may not be ready in terms of facilities and, quite frankly, the city infrastructure may not be ready to put 216,000 students on the road going to school,” Carranza said.
Loretta Jones, and her sons, 12-year-old John and Thomas, age 8, rode in a military vehicle and then in the back of a U-Haul truck to evacuate to Houston’s convention center after flood waters reached their home. The boys weren’t complaining about missing school, but their mother was more wary.
“It’s tough,” said Jones, 47. “They’re going to miss a week and who knows how much longer.”
Families that have been displaced to shelters in San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and elsewhere in Texas can enroll their children in the local school districts, though few appear to be doing so yet. If school districts affected by Harvey miss significant class time, they can get state exemptions that keep students from having to repeat grades. Exceptions also can be made for districts that see sharp drops in enrollment due to evacuations, Callahan said.
“I think everybody’s goal is to get these kids back in school,” Callahan said. “Local schools are the rock of the community in a lot of ways.”
The early damage to Houston’s colleges, meanwhile, appeared to be less widespread. Rice University canceled classes, but its campus dorms and libraries remained open. The University of Houston’s football team decamped to Austin in order to hold normal practices – though the school decided late Tuesday to cancel its season-opening game at the University of Texas-San Antonio.
“When it’s time to do football for these three hours, we do football for three hours,” said coach Major Applewhite. “As soon as it’s over we’re back on the phone, call mom, make sure everybody is OK.