LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County faces a mountain of obstacles in trying to reopen schools following Hurricane Matthew — from physical damage and impassable school bus routes to spoiled food in cafeterias that were without power for days.
School has been out for the two weeks since Matthew dumped as much as a foot of rain on the county, causing flooding that swallowed up the school system’s central office, forced residents into emergency shelters at some schools and shut down the water plant that serves Lumberton schools.
School officials on Thursday night reviewed the damage and discussed steps forward in an assessment that caused at least one school board member and Superintendent Tommy Lowry to tear up.
“My first priority as superintendent is to try to get our kids back in school in a safe environment. In doing so, there are certain things I have to look at to make sure it is safe for our kids to come back to school,” Lowry said. “I think they need to be in school. We have counselors, their teachers — it’s a safe environment. It’s an environment where kids can be there and get reassurance. Guidance counselors and every other support staff are there to help our kids through this devastation they are going through.”
Lowry said the school system’s goal is to get students back in school “as fast as we can — but remember — as safe as we can.”
Pending road conditions improving and the results of air quality tests, he hopes to re-open schools in good condition next week, meaning some Robeson students would head back to class sooner than others.
Hurricane Matthew inflicted “very minimal damage at most of our schools,” Lowry said. The system includes 42 schools.
West Lumberton Elementary School suffered the most damage of the schools and is “nowhere close to being ready to open up,” Lowry said. The board on Thursday voted to place a mobile school at the site so that students there can continue classes with their same teachers and have some semblance of normalcy after their neighborhood was inundated by flooding. The decision is subject to approval by the city of Lumberton.
” … If you go into that area and see the devastation, I just feel like those teachers know more about those kids and their needs,” Lowry said.
W.H. Knuckles Elementary’s cafeteria is “a disaster,” Lowry said, because of water damage and food that needs to be thrown out. Its kindergarten classrooms also saw flooding. Lumberton Junior High School suffered damage to its auditorium. St. Pauls Elementary’s office and media center have water damage and Rosenwald Elementary’s auditorium and office were damaged.
The school system’s central office was described Thursday as “a total loss.” Floodwater forced fuel tanks next to the facility off of their foundations, leaking fuel. The fuel was contained and cleanup is underway with EPA oversight, Lowry said.
An adjoining transportation department, the Program Services Department, the Maintenance Department and the planetarium were also flooded, leaving dark waterlines on the walls and documents, equipment and chairs in disarray. Lowry said as much as 5 feet of water entered Program Services.
One important hurdle to reopening Robeson schools has been toppled: Emergency shelters that housed a peak of 1,800 people at several schools have been cleared out. Remaining shelter occupants, who on Thursday numbered about 300, have all been relocated to either Bill Sapp Recreation Center or the Robeson County fairgrounds.
Lowry said road conditions and the status of the city’s water supply are issues that must be taken “day by day.” More than 140 roads were still closed in Robeson County Friday due to flooding or washouts and teams were set to assess bus routes Friday and Monday. Although Lumberton has recently restored water service throughout city limits after its water plant flooded and shut down, there remains a boil advisory for water that is to be consumed. There are nine schools served by city water.
Seven schools were still in need of food removal services Thursday — and those supplies will either need to be replaced by bag lunches, catering or others means in order to feed returning students.
“There is a lot of cleanup being done at the schools, a lot of work as far as getting schools ready for kids and staff to go into,” he said. “We are going to have air quality controls done at every one of our schools, every site that has anything to do with the Public Schools of Robeson County, and that is a tedious process to be able to do, but before I would allow students or staff to go back into those places I need to make sure they are safe for our staff and our students to return in those areas.”
Keeping employees on the job is also a priority, Lowry said. Payroll was one of the first departments up and running after the storm to ensure that “everybody will get their checks at the end of the month” while they deal with their own losses from the storm.
Lowry commended staff for their hard work following the hurricane, as well as Robeson County residents for stepping up to help out in shelters, donate supplies and give moral support.
It’s not clear when exactly students and staff can return to the schools hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew. Lowry said the mobile school could be delivered to West Lumberton within about a week and then “it’s just a matter of how fast we could get them water and electricity.” Board Chair Loistine DeFreece suggested looking at staggering school schedules so that students from a damaged facility can attend another school without overcrowding it.
Board members discussed several options before approving the mobile school plan unanimously. Lowry said other schools do not have the space to accommodate West Lumberton’s 12 classrooms, and dispersing its 130 students into other classrooms would put teachers out of the job. Placing the students in an existing building, like a church, poses liability issues and inspections that would delay getting students back in school.
Board members, taking Lowry’s recommendation, agreed it would be best to keep the young students together.
“We’ve lost homes, we’ve lost churches, but we will build back,” board member Peggy Chavis said. “They want to keep West Lumberton together … they don’t want to lose their community school with losing everything else.”
In other business, the board on Thursday:
— Voted to hire DMS disaster consultants to help the school system deal with FEMA and maximize its reimbursement for hurricane-related damages. The firm has already by hired by the Robeson County commissioners for the same purpose.
— Adopted an anti-bullying proclamation that states the school system’s intolerance of bullying and outlines the anti-bullying events it observes.
— Approved plans to improve grades at low-performing schools.
— Authorized the hiring of teacher assistants for third grade classrooms and above at low-performing schools. The positions will be paid for with money set aside for low-performing schools via a 27-month grant.
— Approved fundraisers for the 2016-2017 year.
— Approved students transfers and the hiring of Tracy Ferguson as assistant principal at Lumberton High School.
— Rescheduled its next meeting for Nov. 10.
Sarah Willets can be reached on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.