Escambia schools will reopen Wednesday, offer internet hotspots for hardest-hit families

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Pensacola News Journal | by Kevin Robinson | September 22, 2020

Escambia County schools and administrative buildings will resume normal operations on Wednesday.

Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said the district would make accommodations to assist families who are still dealing with the impacts of Hurricane Sally, but that ultimately the best way to help families recover was to get students back in class.

“It may not be real pretty on the first day … but we think it’s more valuable to go ahead and get back,” Thomas said. “Our families are depending on that. Many of those families can’t resume their own operation,  their work or even take care of their own disaster till they can put the students back into school and get them otherwise engaged.”

All district employees are to report to their work sites at their normally scheduled time on Wednesday. 

Thomas said the district had power and water, and that facilities, maintenance and custodial staff would be working through the day Tuesday to ensure debris was removed from school grounds. He said internet connectivity might be an issue in some places, but that “we still have books, we still have teachers that can teach without a computer and so we may have to do that for a day or two until we can bring the network (back online).”

The superintendent said the district would also honor the choices of families who, due to COVID-19, have opted for remote instruction rather than in-person classes. Thomas said the district is working on a plan for remote education: one with a category for people affected short-term by Sally and another for families who would be feeling the impacts long term.

“If the individual is in a situation where, say, the house has been completely flooded — they’re out of the home, and they’re not going to be in the home for weeks or months and they’re relocating — we have hotspots that we can provide the students,” Thomas said.

He said the district had about 250 hotspots it could issue to high school students with the greatest need, and a similar number for middle and elementary schools.

Otherwise, “If someone’s just waiting for Cox (Communications) to connect them and we think that’s going to happen in a day or two, we have a plan where they can do paper packets,” Thomas said. “So, the first order of operation for remote teachers is to make contact with all the students and to find out their status, and we think by midday Wednesday we’ll have the data necessary to begin making decisions on who needs a paper packet, who needs a hotspot and then a plan to distribute what is necessary for those students.”

Thomas said some in-person students would have to be relocated — most notably at Holm Elementary School where flooding caused significant damage to a wing of the schoolhouse — but that students might also have to be shifted to other classrooms because of things such as water intrusion into a portable building.

District administrators, high school principals, coaches and athletic directors will be inspecting all athletic facilities and fields throughout the district. For those campuses with viable athletic facilities and fields, high school athletic practices may resume after noon Tuesday. 

“We’ll make decisions school by school later in the week in terms of whether they will play their games on Friday night as scheduled,” Thomas said. “I understand some schools may still want to shift that to next Monday or reschedule. We’re going to let athletic directors and the two teams playing work through that. More details will come out on that in the next couple of days.”

Thomas and the board said they appreciated all the hard work from staff who’ve worked long days getting schools ready.

He said currently, the damage to district facilities has been assessed at somewhere between $10 million and  $14 million. Thomas told members he had signed off on a declaration of emergency that allows the district to expedite necessary functions like debris removal, and roofing and awning repair.

Thomas noted that in the long-run, the district would be able to try and have the majority of the costs reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but that at least 25% would likely have to come from out of the district’s capital outlay fund.

Still, Thomas said in the grand scheme of things, especially compared to Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the district had weathered the storm well.

“We’re in a great position,” Thomas said. “We have power. Tomorrow, we’ll have power, water and debris removal. Our teams are taken care of. We’ve still got work to do, we’ll work all the way through tomorrow, but we will be at a place where we will be able to restart school.”

Photo: Escambia County School District