Tuesday, October 16, 2018
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Irma's gone. Why isn't my child going back to school this week?

Tuesday morning brought clear skies, great jogging weather and a repeated refrain from parents: Why exactly isn’t my kid back in school?

Among the reasons: Power outages, lingering evacuees and dirty diapers.

The Tampa Bay area had, for the most part, escaped the worst of Hurricane Irma, and it seemed a no-brainer to get back into the usual daily routines.

But school district officials in Pasco and Hernando counties had decided during the storm to keep campuses closed until next Monday. And Pinellas and Hillsborough county leaders made the same call Tuesday.

They needed more time to get schools ready for students and teachers, and many staff had personal issues to deal with, as well.

HURRICANE IRMA: Find all of our coverage here

Although life had returned to normal for many families, Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning explained, schools can’t just turn on a dime — from shelters back to places of learning. They had housed thousands of evacuees and their pets for two or more days, and the "torn apart" schools needed to be whipped back into shape.

"It’s like a complete summer cleaning in a few days," said Ken Bruno, plant manager at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel. "You might as well call it a deep cleaning of the entire building."

That means sanitizing the floors, walls, doors and furniture of every room used as shelter.

Some of the residents, who included many with special medical needs, had accidents. Pets too, especially when they couldn’t go outside during the heaviest wind and rain.

Some others were less accidental.

"We found used baby diapers in desks," said Michael Korst, Wesley Chapel High assistant plant manager.

Animal Services workers filled half a garbage bag with dog droppings collected around the Wiregrass Ranch campus.

"God forbid somebody picked up something (sickness) just from grabbing a door handle that someone didn’t wipe down," said Dallas German, Wesley Chapel High plant manager.

German had 33 custodians from three schools, plus a crew from Simpson Environmental, on campus Tuesday to get the cleanup started. Bruno had 30 at Wiregrass Ranch wiping down walls, returning desks and chairs to classrooms and removing trash even as the shelter staff worked to get the final 168 residents back to their homes.

Wiregrass Ranch principal Robyn White estimated the cleaning would take a couple of days, and then teachers would need at least a day to get their rooms back in order. Even then, she added, the school can’t have classes with evacuees inside.

"There might be those we won’t be able to deliver home," she said. "There may be a chance we might still be open tonight."

Middleton High in east Tampa faced a similar concern.

Battling fatigue and a cold, principal Kim Moore conferred Tuesday with volunteers from the Red Cross to try and find placement for residents who had made their way to her campus.

Some had no homes, or no power in their homes, or had learned that the shelters where they usually lived were full.

Beyond the remaining residents and the needed deep clean, some schools might have sustained damage themselves.

Pinellas schools spokeswoman Melanie Parra said schools used as shelters were being assessed for damage, and 53 schools were still without power. She said the district is working with the emergency operations shelter to close shelters with evacuees who are unable to leave.

St. Petersburg High principal Darlene Lebo said a decorative metal sheet covering the walkway to the band building blew off, as did a few tiles from the roof.

The school sheltered more than 1,000 evacuees during Irma, and some were developing a case of cabin fever. With nowhere to shower, the first floor began to smell. Though the school was not set up for pets, a number of them were allowed in as the storm drew near, and some people sneaked them in. Cat litter was found in the hallway, feces on the carpet.

Robinson High School in south Tampa required a day of cleaning Wednesday because of branches and shrubs that covered the grounds, said Hillsborough district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. A tree fell on top of Franklin Boys Preparatory School.

Early in the week, Hillsborough school superintendent Jeff Eakins said he wanted to get students back to school as quickly as possible to restore normalcy to their lives. Teachers were also aware that, for some children, school breakfasts and lunches are the most reliable source of nutrition.

But, when workers went out to assess the condition of the district’s more than 230 schools, they found 130 had no power. By Tuesday, that number remained near 100.

"Our structures are actually very good except a couple that took on some water intrusion. But our next issue is power," Eakins said Monday.

Fifteen schools could not be entered because driveways were blocked with debris.

RELATED: All school districts in Tampa Bay reopen Monday; make-up days in flux

And 40 had been used for shelters, housing approximately 29,000 people. The shelter dwellers had to be cleared out, even though some did not have safe places waiting for them. And crews had to clean up the schools.

There also was the issue of staff. Some school employees, like the general public, left the county or the state to avoid Irma.

And many were among the hundreds of thousands of area residents left without power.

On social media, where some parents complained about schools not reopening immediately, some Hillsborough teachers could be seen groaning when the district announced it would resume classes on Thursday, days before some other counties. The district later pushed back its reopening to next week.

"Hard to get ready to teach when you can’t eat a hot meal, take a shower, etc., tweeted Ryan Haczynski, an International Baccalaureate teacher at Strawberry Crest High School.

The notion that even one parent might not understand this aspect bothered many educators.

"This reminds me of how kids sometimes think teachers have no first names and live at school," Spoto High teacher Anna Brubaker remarked on Facebook.

Pinellas teacher Mary Niemeyer made the point crystal clear.

"Teachers like me evacuated out of state, and we’re not coming back until there is power where we live," she wrote on Facebook. "Yes! We need a day to restore our lives after power comes on. So, parents, you’re going to have to be parents a while longer as we get through this crisis."

Times Staff Writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol

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