Ruth Schwartz's home sits on one of the highest bits of ground in the New Orleans region and came through Hurricane Katrina with just a little wind damage.
But with no electricity or water and a chaotic situation at home, Schwartz, who has been staying with a sister in Leesburg since Saturday, has decided that she and her family might be refugees in the Washington region for months or longer.
So yesterday, she trooped down to the nearest Loudoun County elementary school to see about getting her 10-year-old son, Simon, registered.
"I thought he needed that consistency, that normalcy of being in school and being with kids," she said.
An estimated 170,000 public school students in Louisiana and Mississippi have been displaced from their schools because of hurricane damage. School districts in areas at the edge of the storm report being deluged with requests from parents, desperate to get their children into classes and back to some semblance of routine. Texas will likely enroll thousands, especially in and around Houston, while Catholic schools in Baton Rouge have pledged to accept any of New Orleans's 50,000 parochial students for a year, for free.
In a sign of the catastrophe's scope, school officials in the Washington region said yesterday that they, too, were hearing from parents looking for schooling for children staying with friends and family in the area. They have been showing up without transcripts, without birth certificates, without records of shots or vaccinations -- in some cases without school clothes or even pencils.
The Virginia and Maryland education departments issued guidance yesterday instructing schools to enroll students as if they were homeless. Federal law allows schools to put homeless students into classes without normal documentation, letting school officials figure out the details afterward.
"These children and their families are experiencing trauma most of us can only imagine," said Jo Lynne DeMary, superintendent of Virginia schools. "Virginia's public schools will do everything possible to ensure that children from the Gulf Coast who have sought shelter in the commonwealth can continue their education."
Fairfax and Montgomery counties both reported getting their share of calls from nervous parents and promised to get kids into school quickly. In Howard County, administrators said they had received at least eight such requests. In Alexandria, educators said they would administer placement tests so refugee students could be put in the right courses even without academic records.
Prince George's County public schools this week have enrolled at least six refugee students from Louisiana. The school system also issued special guidelines to principals to help speed enrollment. "We're doing everything we can to accommodate," said school system spokeswoman Kelly Alexander.
Catholic schools were rushing to provide spaces for the students enrolled in New Orleans' 106 parochial schools. Spokeswomen for the Archdiocese of Washington and the Archdiocese of Arlington said that they had received numerous inquiries and that parish schools planned to open their doors. They said the archdioceses were working to waive tuition for students in financial need.
Two children staying with Washington area families have already registered at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, one of 23 schools nationally run by Society of the Sacred Heart nuns. But the network of schools is looking to place all 800 children who had been attending the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, so the Bethesda school's headmistress called an assembly yesterday morning and asked students if their families would agree to provide temporary housing to strangers so more can enroll.
"We're opening our doors, and it may be for up to a whole year," said Helen Macsherry, director of communications for the school.
In Ashburn, a woman called Dominion Trail Elementary School yesterday asking if she could register her four nieces and nephews -- two sets of siblings -- all of whom had evacuated New Orleans with their mothers and were settling in with their aunt and her family in her suburban home.
"They were so happy they were safe. They're not thinking about down the line, about all the bathrooms that are going to have to be used at the same time," said the school's principal, Sharon Keegan-Coppels.
Staff writers Nick Anderson, Lori Aratani, Tara Bahrampour, Maria Glod, V. Dion Haynes, Ylan Q. Mui, Amit R. Paley, Ian Shapira and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.