BAKER, La. — Twenty-two districts across a vast swath of southern Louisiana were forced to close last week by a historic flood, delaying or interrupting the start of the school year for tens of thousands of children.
Although some districts remain closed indefinitely — and the superintendent of one hard-hit district is living in an emergency shelter — the majority plan to welcome students back within the next two weeks, according to John White, the Louisiana state superintendent.
But school leaders are far more worried about making sure they have enough teachers than they are about the physical condition of classrooms, White said.
“There is the facility and capacity in the region to serve all students,” he said. “The greater challenge is displacement, especially of teachers.”
He estimated that 4,000 teachers and other staff members who are critical to the schools’ operation — including bus drivers, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals and janitors — have been displaced by the flood.
Public servants considered “essential personnel” are entitled to expedited assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, White said, adding that his agency is pushing for educators and school personnel to gain this swift relief.
“But there is a very large number of displaced people,” White said. “So there is a question of what housing will be available.”
At stake is not only whether schools will be able to provide students with stability and routine at a time of great upheaval, but also whether students — many of whom are disadvantaged — will lose out on more precious learning time.
East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, the second-largest district in the state, had been in session just two days when floodwater coursed into the city. So far, six schools there have been deemed too damaged to reopen, spokeswoman Adonica Pelichet Duggan said. That number is expected to rise.
Classes in East Baton Rouge Parish Schools are scheduled to start again Wednesday. But Pelichet Duggan estimated that the flood affected about one-third of the district’s 6,000 employees, making it impossible to operate schools normally.
District officials are planning to combine schools until all buildings are functional, in some cases running two schools out of one building. The combination of missing class time, upending school routines and scrambling to find enough teachers could come at an academic cost to students who already perform below the state average on state math and reading tests and who are overwhelmingly at risk, according to state data.
Students will be bused — no matter where in the district they are staying — to school sites in their home neighborhoods.
“Our students need some sense of continuity,” Pelichet Duggan said. “For a lot of our students, they will eventually be moving back to their neighborhoods. We want to keep as much stability for those students as they can possibly have at this point in their lives, when everything else is chaos.”
Providing transportation to far-flung students poses an additional logistical problem to districts already struggling with more than the usual challenges.
White, the state schools chief, said the Louisiana Department of Education is working on organizing additional bus routes in affected parishes.
Schools will also serve as a checkpoint for the mental well-being of traumatized students. “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.”
In some of the hardest-hit areas, including Livingston and Ascension parishes, school districts have not yet announced when they will reopen.
Livingston Superintendent Rick Wentzel, who took office on July 1, said 15 of the 46 schools in his district were flooded. That damage was extensive in eight schools, and one-third of employees are displaced, he said.
“We’re still assessing our facilities, assessing our workforce, assessing our students,” Wentzel said. “Our plan is to get back as soon as we can. But that’s very difficult when people get displaced.”
Wentzel himself lives in a shelter; he rescued his wife by boat after their home took on 2½ feet of water. “It’s very, very difficult,” he said.
Reopening school buildings damaged by the flood is taking long days and lots of legwork.
At Baker High School on Thursday, a thin layer of mud dried in the front foyer. The gym floor, buckled after days of sitting in still water, resembled a skate ramp, complete with three large, wooden waves. In an office down the hall, files were spread across the floor to dry. There were puddles in the halls.
That afternoon, a single student and a small group of staff members gathered in the school library, at the heart of the damage. On the floor sat nearly all of the school’s textbooks, neatly arranged for distribution to incoming students and now ruined by water.
It is too early to estimate the cost of the damage, but Herman Brister, superintendent of the City of Baker School District, expects the losses at the district’s only high school — which serves about 550 students, the vast majority of whom are African American and poor — to be in the millions of dollars.
Traci Morgan, the principal at Baker High, said this experience has been devastating. Although her home survived the floods, she has four family members staying with her as she works to reopen the school. “There is not one person who is a teacher, a custodian, a paraprofessional, a librarian or a secretary — there is not one employee of Baker High who is not impacted by this,” she said. “We have students and teachers who have lost literally everything.
“When I walked in, I could see the water line,” Morgan said. “And that’s when it hit me.”
James Beverly, a custodian at Baker, estimates that each room in the school had at least two feet of water. When he came to inspect the damage on Sunday, “I opened the door, and it was like a river,” he said.
Victor Mock, a bus driver for Baker, spent 50 hours rescuing an estimated 800 people with his 71-passenger bus. “The water in some areas was up on the third step of the bus,” he said. “It was a time when you have to let your heart overrule your mind.” Less than a week later, he was using his bus to transport school supplies and books between the flooded high school and its new location.
Mock’s bus will return to carrying students on Monday, when classes are set to resume in Baker.
It will take some time before the high school building is ready for students again. The district will play a sort of musical chairs, pushing high school students into the middle school, moving middle school students into an elementary school and combining two small elementary schools into one.
Brister, the superintendent, expected that 75 to 80 percent of students will return to class next week. Hannah Jones, a junior at Baker High who had stopped by the school to help assess the damage, said she was ready.
“It’s your home away from home when you go to school,” Jones said.
Emma Brown in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.