Baton Rouge Floods Displace Students, Shutter Schools

(Photo: James Nielson, Houston Chronicle)

(Photo: James Nielson, Houston Chronicle)

Last week, a historic flood forced twenty-two districts across southern Louisiana to close their doors only two days after some students had returned to school. Tens of thousands of learners are being delayed or interrupted as they attempt to begin the new academic year.

Most of the districts plan to get back to business within the next two weeks, says Louisiana State Superintendent John White, but some systems will remain closed for an undetermined amount of time. One of the hardest hit districts has a superintendent who is living in an emergency shelter, writes Ashley Cusack for The Washington Post.

The central problem faced by school leaders, at this point, is having enough teachers.

"There is the facility and capacity in the region to serve all students," White said. "The greater challenge is displacement, especially of teachers."

Up to 4,000 classroom instructors and staff members, who are crucially needed to operate the state's schools, including cafeteria workers, bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and custodians, have been left temporarily homeless by the flooding.

White is fighting for educators and school staff to be considered "essential personnel" so they will be entitled to have their assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency expedited.

"But there is a very large number of displaced people," White said. "So there is a question of what housing will be available."

It is critical for schools to open because being in their classrooms will give kids a sense of stability and peace in this tragic time, but also many children are at-risk students, who do not need to lose out on learning opportunities. The combination of missed teaching classroom instruction, upended schedules , and a dearth of teachers to fill classrooms could result in academic losses for young people who are already performing below grade level.

Students are scattered, so transportation to school present a logistical dilemma. School buildings that are usable may have to house two schools in one location. And schools often act as a mental wellbeing checkpoints for pupils who have been traumatized:

"We are being very intentional and conscious of the challenges children may have," White said. "It is critical that to every extent possible, schools should have counselors on hand to deal with the social and emotional needs of their students."

Updates on closures and other school information are being released on Facebook, districts' websites, and by receptionists. The Louisiana Education Department remained closed late last week, as many of its employees had only occasional email and home phone service, according to Danielle Dreilinger of The Times-Picayune.

Thousands of students in charter, private schools, day care centers, and university laboratory schools were in flooding areas. Even schools with no damage cannot open because of the dangers of traveling from place to place.

Most districts re-opened doors on Monday. White says he has contacted curriculum and technology companies to begin the replacing of material destroyed in the flooding. Sadly, the victims in the flooding area have experienced this kind of disaster when Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana.

Thirty-one inches of water fell in a 15 hour period, and over 800,000 residents who live in Baton Rouge and surrounding areas were not prepared for the scope of the devastation they experienced.

Brad Kieserman, the Red Cross' vice president of disaster services operations and logistics, said thousands had lost everything they had. Tim Newcomb, reporting for The 74 Million, notes that area high schoolers spent days piling sandbags that helped keep the flood away from houses.

Jacques Doucet, the sports anchor for Baton Rouge's WAFB, said numerous Silliman High School football team members worked alongside fellow football players from a nearby private school cleaning and restoring their damaged football facilities.

Baton Rouge schools' biggest concerns are mold and the inspection of the structural integrity of school buildings. Unfortunately, scattered thunderstorms are forecast for this week.

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