Alexandria and Arlington County schools last week began enrolling a handful of students whose families have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina, a gesture intended to restore some normalcy to the children's lives.
Providing the children the familiar setting of a classroom is "the best assistance we can think to offer," said Arlington Superintendent Robert G. Smith.
The students -- three in Alexandria and three in Arlington by Friday -- were enrolled under provisions of a federal law in time for the first day of classes Tuesday. The McKinney-Vento Act allows schools to admit homeless students or students without school records or other proof of schooling.
School officials said they expected to enroll more displaced students as the catastrophe unfolded: Many families called last week to inquire about availability. Officials said the children would probably remain in the area's schools for several months.
"We know that these students will not have birth, health or scholastic records, but we will work with the families to provide the much-needed support for their children," Smith said.
"We feel we have an obligation to provide this kind of service, and our hearts just go out to those people affected by the hurricane."
The children are relatives or family friends of local residents and fled here with their families as rising waters forced them from their homes in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.
The Virginia Department of Education notified school systems last week that children arriving in the area might not have the necessary paperwork and identification for registration. But principals and school administrators said none of that mattered, even as the families began arriving just days before the start of the academic year.
The Louisiana Department of Education estimated that more than 135,000 students would not be able to return to school because of destruction caused by the storm. The Mississippi Department of Education estimated that about 35,000 of its students have been displaced.
Shelly Midura and her children arrived in Arlington last week from New Orleans, where they have lived since 1998, when the family left the D.C. area for Midura's hometown.
Midura said she had been a "faithful evacuator" during every storm. The first time, she said, she loaded up the car with valuables and clothes. But each time she fled the below-sea-level city, she carried less than she did before.
"Each time, we prepared our house, then nothing happened, and I'd come back and think, 'Oh, man, I've got to put all this stuff back,' " Midura said in a telephone interview Friday. "This time, I took only four days' worth of clothes . . . just the bare minimum."
The family left New Orleans Aug. 27, not long after the evacuation order was announced. They drove to Lafayette, La., where her brother lives, but he was considering leaving, too. So they went to Atlanta to stay with friends.
"But once the water started rising, we realized the city would be closed for a very long time," she said, adding that her college roommate lives in Arlington and that her husband regularly commutes from New Orleans to the District. "We figured this was the best place to come."
Anticipating more displaced families, Arlington and Alexandria school officials said they were eager to assist as many as needed.
Alexandria Deputy Superintendent Cathy David said the school system "has tremendous support teams," including counselors, social workers and psychologists ready to help.
"These children have been through amazing trauma," she said. "We need to figure out how to help them while we keep educating them."
Already, several principals and PTAs have begun mobilizing. David sent out an e-mail Friday encouraging principals and PTAs to organize child-inclusive fundraisers, such as read-a-thons or math-a-thons, so the children can be involved in addressing a problem, even one this large.
David said that the initial plan is to enroll the displaced children in the school closest to where they are staying but that if the numbers rise sufficiently, officials might need to come up with other solutions.
Marjory Franklin, a school psychologist at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington, was watching the news from New Orleans on Friday and decided to do something to help. She thought of filling her car with food and water and driving down. "But that isn't practical, and people who did that would be more in the way than any help," she said.
So the thought came: Arlington teachers are receiving a 7 percent pay raise this year. She decided to donate the increase in her first paycheck -- $125 -- to the American Red Cross. And she has organized an effort to encourage other teachers to do the same.
"It's the first paycheck of the year, so hopefully it wouldn't be missed so much," she said, "especially when you think of the terrible suffering."
"Everyone is very empathetic," said Laura Neff-Henderson, a spokeswoman for Arlington schools.
"We have no idea what they're going through, but we want to help."
The Miduras arrived last Thursday, and the next day all three children were registered for school. The extended family is scattered now -- in this region and on the Gulf Coast.
At Shelly Midura's father's house, water reached the roof. She saw a satellite photograph of her neighborhood. Unbelievably, it appeared that her house had not been flooded, though her street and some of her neighbors' houses were.
"It's so hard to believe that life as we know it will never be the same," she said.