AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Students in Louisiana started this school year almost fully in person. But a week and a half after Hurricane Ida tore through the state, more than 250,000 K-12 students are now waiting for classrooms to reopen. Many are set to return in the coming week, but some students could face a month or more of school closures. Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO has been following the situation from New Orleans and joins us now. Hey, Aubri.
AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: Hey. So do you have a sense of where things stand now? Like, when will all these kids be able to get back into classrooms, do you think?
JUHASZ: Yeah. Well, I'll start with the good news. New Orleans school buildings are mostly OK, and some students could return to classrooms as early as next week. The city's trying to reopen school buildings as quickly as possible, not because they're necessarily worried about students falling behind, but because they know schools might be the safest place for them to be. Some neighborhoods here are still without power, and schools may be the only place that families can access air conditioning, charge their phones and get food.
But even though school buildings are getting ready to reopen, there's still a pretty rough road ahead in New Orleans. In the past, we've seen COVID get worse following a storm because of the increased number of close contacts people have when they evacuate or gather at relief shelters locally. So to try to get ahead of this problem, the district is asking families to get their kids tested before sending them back to school. But tests are really hard to come by right now because everything was shut down due to the storm.
CHANG: OK. You said you were starting with the good news.
CHANG: What is the bad news here?
JUHASZ: Yeah. Well, the bad news is that of all the districts that are experiencing longer-term closures right now, New Orleans is actually the only one that's announced a reopening timeline. Even nearby Jefferson Parish, the state's largest public school district - it's in far worse shape, and it has, you know, yet to set a date to reopen. Its superintendent said yesterday that some schools may need to be bulldozed to the ground due to the level of destruction. Some parishes along the Mississippi River and on the Gulf Coast don't expect to get power back until at least the end of September. And then they'll still have to deal with significant storm damage to buildings. That means more than 45,000 students probably won't get back into classrooms until sometime in October.
I spoke with Susan Adams, a high school English teacher in Terrebonne Parish on the Gulf Coast. Her school suffered a lot of damage from the storm.
SUSAN ADAMS: We all knew that there was definitely going to be water in the school. But the extent of the water in the school is kind of mind-blowing.
JUHASZ: She says the walls and floors are slick with mud, the windows are blown out and pieces of the roof are strewn everywhere. She's taught there for 20 years, and she's completely heartbroken. She's also really worried about her students.
ADAMS: Do you know how many of my students stayed and lived through this storm? Like, they were here. They didn't evacuate. I think quite a few, and I think quite a few lost quite everything that they had. We're going to have to, like, love those kids hard when we go back.
CHANG: Yeah. I mean, if there's mud in the school building and windows are blown out, I don't get it. How are these students and teachers going to be able to return?
JUHASZ: Yeah, I mean, it's a really hard road ahead. And the big question is, there is not a clear timeline. There's no quick fixes. I called up Karl Bruchhaus. He's the superintendent of Calcasieu Parish Public Schools. Because he was in the exact same situation a year ago after Hurricane Laura hit his part of the state. His district still hasn't been able to fully repair the hurricane damage to school buildings, but he says teachers and students are moving ahead with school as best they can.
KARL BRUCHHAUS: They're going to school with concrete floors and no towel on the floor. They're going to school with roof leaks when it rains, very accepting of all of that. And frankly, we're having a pretty good instructional year, absent of the COVID issue, of course, which, you know, is a daily debacle.
JUHASZ: His message to school leaders who have been hit hard by Ida and hit hard by COVID is to - you know, to focus on the students and not let the storm derail their education.
CHANG: Yeah. That is Aubri Juhasz from WWNO in New Orleans. Thank you, Aubrey.
JUHASZ: You're welcome.
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