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Ivan closes school for weeks

No school in Escambia County escaped the damage inflicted by Hurricane Ivan.

The aluminum roof at Workman Middle School crumpled like tinfoil. The metal archway at Holm Elementary School sits in a pile of rubble. The skylight at N.B. Cook Elementary School is gone.

And at Longleaf Elementary School, principal Pat Reynold's book fair was ruined.

"We had all the books sitting out before the storm came and then the roof came off the library," Reynolds said, shaking her head sadly. "Everything's ruined, at least for this year."

Hurricane Ivan's 130 mph winds slammed Escambia's 65 schools, shattering windows and blowing portable trailers off their foundations. At least one school is beyond repair and about 75 percent sustained significant damage.

The cost of cleaning up is estimated at from $40-million to $80-million.

"We all knew it was going to be bad," superintendent Jim Paul said Monday. "But I don't think anyone knew in the remotest part of their minds how bad it was going to be."

School officials are telling residents here to expect at least two weeks without school, but some say it's likely to be closer to two months.

How they will make up for the lost time still isn't known, but officials have discussed extending the school year and canceling fall and spring break.

Some of those answers could emerge in Tallahassee today when Gov. Jeb Bush discusses how to deal with the effects of three hurricanes that damaged schools and caused days of canceled classes.

On Monday, Bush visited several emergency distribution sites in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties before flying back to the capital.

The governor and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher agreed that damage caused by Ivan would likely exceed that of either of the earlier storms, Charley and Frances.

State officials increased the official death toll from Ivan to 19 after reporting a woman died Sept. 15 from a drug overdose during evacuation. Electricity continued to be restored to homes in the Panhandle, though 188,712 homes and businesses in seven counties remained without power.

Schools in six Panhandle counties planned to be closed today.

Only three of Escambia's schools are habitable, and those are being used as emergency shelters. About 1,500 people here still need the shelters and the number is expected to increase if people don't get power restored soon, said Steve Sharp, the school system's public safety director.

For now, school employees aren't even allowed to enter their school to survey destruction or retrieve a lesson book. They are being threatened with arrest if they even step inside a school, a safety precaution and an attempt to discourage looting.

At an emergency meeting for principals and assistant principals Monday, there were also concerns about whether the class size amendment will be waived and how teachers will receive their paychecks.

"Remember, folks, we've never seen a situation like this," Paul told them. "We've got no playbook for this. We have to make it up to go along."

Students won't be completely without resources. The school system is teaming up with the Pensacola News-Journal to publish daily lessons. Parents will be encouraged to discuss the assignments with their children.

The school system is still assessing damage and attempting to restore power to all of the buildings. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for 75 percent of the cost but the county will have to pick up the rest.

Paul said his first priority is opening the school doors again.

"It's very important to the psyche of the community," he said. "Right now, everyone is in a state of shock and so are the kids. But after a week or so, it's going to turn to frustration. Then it's going to turn to anger."

Shannon Farrell, assistant principal of Escambia Charter School, couldn't stand the suspense and visited her school Friday morning. She feared the worst when a clump of downed trees blocked her path.

The school itself isn't badly mangled: A missing roof and some water damage is the worst of it. But Farrell said she's worried about the students: 140 at-risk kids she's used to seeing every day. "We're going to start calling them on Thursday," Farrell said. "I hope they're all okay."

Pensacola resident Sandra Berman is already counting the days until her four daughters go back to school. All five of them are cooped up in a mobile home without power. Add her husband, a cat and a cranky chihuahua, and the days are getting unbearable.

"They need to go back," Berman said, as she hauled debris out of her yard. "I know it's only been a few days but I need a vacation from them."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.