Two weeks and 350 miles away from the start of their school year, tens of thousands of children displaced by Hurricane Katrina are expected to show up in classrooms here this week.
The same scene will play out in towns big and small across southern Louisiana and Texas as former residents of the New Orleans area settle in for what could be a long stay in the towns where they have landed. Local school boards have opened their arms to the newcomers, waiving all the normal identification and immunization requirements so that the younger evacuees can at least continue with their education.
"We will do everything we can to welcome these students and return some form of stability to the lives of these youngsters," Texas Education Commissioner Shirley J. Neeley announced last week.
More new enrollees are expected across Texas when school resumes on Tuesday. Since none of the families swept up in the exodus really knows when, or if, it will be possible to head back to New Orleans, school officials say they are planning to keep the newcomers at least through the fall semester.
Most school districts say they can absorb their visiting students without serious crowding, although superintendents were racing over the holiday weekend to find additional buses, drivers and teachers.
The strain of dealing with the evacuees began to show here Sunday.
Electronic signs that normally alert drivers to traffic bottlenecks on Interstate 45 yesterday read: "All evacuee buses divert to Ft. Chaffee, Ark.," and there were reports that signs on highways crossing into the state from Louisiana said, "Go to Arkansas. Texas is closed."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) acknowledged, "To meet this enormous need, we need help from other states."
Houston, where the school year began three weeks ago, already has absorbed 6,100 students who evacuated Louisiana in advance of the hurricane. School officials estimated that their normal enrollment of 210,000 pupils will be swollen this week by tens of thousands of children who evacuated after the storm.
"It's a whole school district out there," said Richard Griffin, executive director of the Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an arm of the Harris County Department of Education that is coordinating enrollment of the storm victims. "You can imagine the number of school personnel and teachers it takes to run a school district."
Texas has a state law that caps the student-teacher ratio in most public schools at 22 to 1, a level that is now likely to be broken in many districts. The state education agency said the rule will be waived for schools with "a significant influx of students due to the hurricane."
Griffin said the 22-pupil limit already had been waived in Harris County to accommodate the newcomers. He said school officials will begin Tuesday or Wednesday to register school-age children whose families have been given shelter at the Astrodome, with the goal of having them in classes by Friday.
"In an ideal world, we'd like to keep them together as much as possible," Griffin said. "They're going to need a lot of counseling support."
But that could present logistical challenges as the families are relocated from the Astrodome to shelters or private homes that are distant from the schools where the children are enrolled.
In East Texas, where many public schools require uniforms, residents were being asked to donate their children's outgrown school wear.
Beaumont, an oil town about 30 miles from the Louisiana border, has about 21,000 enrollees in its independent school system. As of Friday, the school district said, Katrina had blown in 328 new students.
Nearly all are living at the makeshift shelter at Ford Exhibit Hall, but they have been distributed among 16 schools.
The smaller West Orange-Cove school district, spanning a stretch of bayou right on the state border, reported about 200 refugee students as of Friday.
When her family set out westward last week in a three-car caravan to escape the hurricane, 15-year-old Parielle Pruitt thought she was in for an extended vacation from school.
But it was not to be.
At 7:30 Friday morning, a school bus pulled up to the big front door of Ford Exhibit Hall, the arena where the Pruitts and 2,000 other survivors of the storm are living. With that, Parielle suddenly became a sophomore at Beaumont's Central High School.
"It's a good school, know'm saying?" Parielle observed. "Except the kids talk country."
Pruitt's brother Jarrod, 13, rode the bus Friday to Beaumont's Willie Ray Smith Middle School.
"It felt pretty much like Ralph J. Bunche," his middle school in Kenner, La., Jarrod said. "Except they've got uniforms here."
They may be living on cots in an exhibition hall turned temporary shelter, but Parielle Pruitt, 15, and her brother Jarrod, 13, of Kenner, La., already are enrolled in the public schools in Beaumont, Tex. Reginald Cressy and Corionne Thompson, 5, play at a Houston shelter. By Friday, Corionne could be attending school.