Uncertainty Over When Florida Students Will Be Able To Return To Schools Following Hurricane Ian

In central Florida, where Hurricane Ian had the most effect, many schools are hopeful to return to normal operation next Monday, but that could change depending on how cleanup and restoration go.

By Kari Apted | Published

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Hurricane Ian slammed into the southwestern coast of Florida around 3:00 p.m. on September 28, 2022, after ripping through Cuba the day before. The Category four storm lowered to a Category one after crossing onto land, but its slow pace of just eight MPH gave it plenty of time to drench Central Florida. Ian left massive flooding, devastation, and millions without power in its wake, prompting concerns over when schools could safely open again.

The City of Tampa is located in Hillsborough County, where Hurricane Ian caused the Tampa Bay water to drain away in a reverse storm surge. The normally busy harbor became an eerily empty basin before refilling several feet above normal when the regular storm surge took place. Hillsborough school superintendent Addison Davis called for patience as people asked about the return to school even during the pre-storm bay emptying.

Davis responded to the concerns over Hurricane Ian. “We will have rapid response teams where every one of our security, maintenance, and principals will go to our facilities and determine whether or not we have a roof leak, do we have debris in the bus riding zone, in the car riding zone. Do we have power outages?”

Davis said that a return to school on Friday, September 30, would be ideal, but it depended on the impact of the storm. Hurricane Ian left weather forecasters speculating about its potential landfall location for days before it settled on a path. Just a few miles north or south can drastically change the impact felt in certain zones, making predictions like the return to school tenuous at best.

Using public schools as storm shelters adds another layer of complexity to Hillsborough’s return to normal. Schools require deep cleaning after being used as a hurricane shelter, especially if the shelter is pet friendly. Even so, at the time of this writing, Hillsborough had posted a letter addressing Hurricane Ian on their website stating that students should anticipate a return to school on Monday, October 3.

Given the severity of the storm, going back to class less than a week after Hurricane Ian is impressive. In a press conference, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, “We’ve never seen storm surge of this magnitude. The amount of water that’s been rising, and will likely continue to rise today even as the storm is passing, is basically a 500-year flooding event.”

Parents, students, and teachers alike look forward to a return to normalcy after a life-changing event like Hurricane Ian. However, safety is of primary importance. All school systems in Ian’s path must check each building for structural integrity before allowing students and staff back inside.

Severe infrastructure damage could greatly extend the amount of time needed to restore areas to pre-Ian conditions. According to the Tampa Bay Times, a causeway collapsed in sections, leaving Sanibel Island unreachable except by boat. Rebuilding Sanibel Causeway after Hurricane Ian will be an expensive and lengthy project, as even the pavement leading up to it was reduced into a field of rubble.

Disrupted power service could also keep some Florida children at home longer than anticipated. Over 13 counties were affected by serious electric outages, leaving well over two million Floridians in the dark. In some areas, systems were so severely damaged that quick fixes were impossible.

Hurricane Ian

Because of the sheer volume of water slow-moving Hurricane Ian dumped across Florida, many flooded areas are still at least partially submerged. This could also interfere with a quick return to the classroom. Flooded school buildings must undergo deep cleaning and mold preventive measures before kids go back.

Slow draining roadways are yet another factor school boards must consider before setting a return date after a storm. Not only can the flooded roads make it treacherous for everyone to drive, but they can also prevent school buses from reaching kids who need a ride. Clearly, the return to school after Hurricane Ian is a complicated decision with a long checklist of safety measures that must first be met.

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