As sure as people empty the supermarkets of bottled water before a hurricane, disaster preparation comes with difficult decisions about opening and closing schools.
Classes were in session on Tuesday in Manatee and Sarasota counties — but not in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco or Hernando, causing some parents to wonder why the kids couldn’t all return to their studies as the local threat from Hurricane Dorian lifted.
“As with any decision regarding school operations during severe weather, there are people who agree with the district’s decision and others who do not," said Lisa Wolf-Chason, spokeswoman for Pinellas County Schools. "This is typical.”
On social media, there were disagreements about whether the districts moved too quickly, too slowly, or if they should have closed at all.
“We don’t make this decision lightly when we decide to cancel school,” said Grayson Kamm, spokesman for the Hillsborough County district. 'We know the impact it has on the community and on the economy and on child care."
But, he said, faced with the real possibility that the schools would be needed as shelters, and the enormous work that goes into such an undertaking, district leaders felt that closing was “the smartest, safest choice.”
Hillsborough, the largest district in the Tampa Bay area, waited until after 4 p.m. Tuesday to announce that schools would reopen Wednesday for sure. The district had been waiting for an “all clear” from emergency operations officials.
It had been on standby as long as a week ago to shelter not just its own residents, but also those from East Coast communities that were more likely to take a direct hit.
“We were preparing for just about anything,” said John Newman, chief of security for the Hillsborough district, which has about 230 schools.
More than 60 of those campuses had to be readied for possible use as shelters, with much of the work happening right around dismissal time on Friday. “By Saturday noon, we wanted them ready to go, and then go home," Newman said.
The 22 that were most likely to open included “special needs” shelters with cots and emergency generators to power medical equipment, pet friendly shelters with trailers from the county’s Animal Services office, and family shelters for county employees who would work throughout the storm.
On Facebook, where some parents began to complain, Collins Elementary principal Rebecca Sargable posted photographs of the bare floors in her classrooms and corners where she stashed wet wipes, candy, flashlights and crayons.
“Welcome friends!” said a note on one of the whiteboards. “We hope you find this a nice and safe place to stay.”
Sargable said she wanted people to understand how much work goes on — not just at Collins, but on every campus — so schools can serve the community in a time of disaster.
And somebody had to re-assemble those classrooms after the threat had passed. Sargable did not want kindergarten children to see their classrooms cleared of all furnishings, rugs and toys.
“That could really frighten them," she said Tuesday. “So I had the school open from 8 to 11 this morning. I had 73 people come. Faculty, staff, PTA volunteers, just people in the community. They came and we got it done in three hours."
Beyond the workload, Kamm said, there was the question of where people would be on Tuesday.
“We’ve been asked, as recently as yesterday, why can’t you just change your mind?” Kamm said. “But some teachers make plans to stay away. And with 24,000 employees if even 10 percent are not able to make it back in time, that’s 2,400 people. It’s just unworkable.”
Eileen Long, a member of the Pinellas School Board, noted that when her district decided to close schools on Friday, meteorologists were still unsure of Dorian’s path. Apart from the need for school to serve as shelters, there was a possibility of heavy rain and high winds as hundreds of buses carried children on the roads.
“I would much rather keep our children home in safe conditions rather than have some kind of crisis,” Long said. “I hope that parents and people would just realize, the hurricane has a mind of its own.”
For the most part, union and community leaders commended the districts for decisions that, according to Wolf-Chason, were made “with the safety of our students, staff and families in mind.”
But there were exceptions. “Any excuse. It’s not going anywhere near here,” Pauline Meredith posted on the Pasco district page after the announcement that schools were closed.
Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning acknowledged, “there is no right answer." If he had left schools open, and Dorian barreled across Florida, he said, he would be hearing a different kind of complaint.
Nor was everybody happy in the places where schools remained open.
Tracy Damron-Roelle, a Sarasota County parent, wondered how teachers would get their rooms back in shape for children Tuesday morning. “I just don’t think one day with teachers going in to get their rooms back in order would have been too much to ask for,” she said.
A different set of questions remains, post-Dorian. Districts will need to figure out how they can give children the required hours of instruction, under state law. That situation will be a lot easier if the state grants waivers from the required hours. If not, districts might need to keep school open on scheduled holidays, including the early days of Thanksgiving week.
But those decisions can wait, said Sargable whose mind was on Wednesday’s reopening at Collins.
"We all want it to be a normal school day for kids,” she said.