How the largest school district in Texas is coping with the impact of Hurricane Harvey
Image courtesy of NASA and LANCE Rapid Response

When disaster strikes, the primary goal is providing safety for the most vulnerable.

In southern Texas, highways, airports and schools were overwhelmed by flooding from Hurricane Harvey. People fled homes and apartments to seek shelter at sports arenas and churches resistant to the storm. Many students were also severely impacted by the storm.

The Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas serving 215,000 students, was hit hard by Harvey.

Every school building under HISD was affected, according to Deputy Superintendent Sam Sarabia. But the damage to each school was different. While fifteen percent of buildings only need a simple clean up, nine schools are completely unusable.

Administrators moved students from Robinson Elementary to the middle school. Students in pre-K to 2nd grade were placed in Plesantville Elementary school, a school with a traditionally low enrollment rate. The school will convert unused classrooms so they are functional, according to Sarabia.

All HISD schools missed two weeks of class.

The school district, along with 57 other Texas counties, received “missed days” waivers from the Texas Department of Education, according to a press release. Texas law mandates schools operate for at least 180 days.

The financial cost of the storm is significant. Although the school district is unsure what exactly the cost is, other districts are already reaching out. Boston Public Schools adopted 100 schools, committing to providing support and donated uniforms.

The psychological effects of the storm will also be significant. Schoolchildren could easily find a “pathway to aggression” because of this exposure to a traumatic event, according to a study examining the impact of Hurricane Katrina on students. Another study showed a “positive correlation… between trauma exposure variables and symptoms indicating [a] need for mental health services.”

In an emergency meeting, the school board gave permission to schools to pay hourly employees (custodians, bus drivers and cafeteria workers) even when they are not working. Schools will open one day early for teachers so they are able to emotionally cope with the damage done to their classrooms and coworkers, according to Sarabia. To help offset the stress on parents, the district has continued their “three meals a day” program.

Two days after the storm ended, President Trump announced a recension of DACA.

Two days after the storm ended, President Trump announced a recension of DACA.

“The population of undocumented has been hesitant because of that fear factor,” Sarabia said.

Although the school system does not officially track the number of undocumented students, a sizeable portion of the students (and/or their students) at HISD are not living in the U.S. legally, according to Sarabia.

The City of Houston has made a concerted effort to quell fears of undocumented people fearing to seek help.

“I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what your status is. I do not want you to run the risk of losing your life or a family member because you’re concerned about (Senate Bill) 4 or anything else,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

The Department of Education declined to speak on its specific efforts helping Houston schools.

The financial toll of Hurricane Harvey is expected to be significant, costing between $70 billion and $90 billion for “residential, commercial, industrial, and automotive risks,” according to RMS. The human toll of Harvey was also significant leaving seventy people dead, according to reports.

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