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Gainesville, Hall County schools set to reopen Monday a week after Irma
09182017 Schools
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield talks with school counselor Sandy Armour during a visit Friday to Riverbend Elementary. Officials with the Hall County and Gainesville school systems said they will reopen Monday after missing a week as a result of Tropical Storm Irma. - photo by Norm Cannada

After losing an entire week of school as a result of Tropical Storm Irma and its aftermath, the Hall County and Gainesville school systems are back in session Monday.

“I like to think we always have a sense of urgency, but in my mind, that sense of urgency will be a little higher,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said Friday. “We have lost a week of school. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re going to see that through a positive lens, but we need to hit the ground running and make up for some lost ground.”  

Gainesville City School System Superintendent Jeremy Williams said missing a full week in September gives teachers a chance to focus anew on the quality of instruction rather than quantity.

“This is an opportunity for teachers to kind of hit the reset button knowing that you’ve lost five days,” he said. “Any time you lose instructional time, the teachers’ reaction is sometimes to want to make up that time. Instead, not necessarily doing more work and the quantity of work, but being more specific about the quality of assignments and instruction going on in the classroom.”

Gainesville schools did not have classes or teacher workdays all week, while Hall County had two days that were off completely and three days that were school from home days where students with power and internet access could work on lessons through online learning. Hall County will get credit for the three days officials implemented school from home.

Williams called the week out of school “frustrating.”

“You know the kids need to be in school,” Williams said. “You know that when they’re in school, we have the hot meals, we have the safety, we have the instruction, we have the supervision. When they’re not here, you don’t know what’s going on. From a professional standpoint, these are the longest weeks that we have all year.”

Schofield said having a September storm close school buildings for five days was “a new experience” for him.

“We’ve become very adept at dealing with ice and snow and the aftermath of that,” he said. “I have never experienced these kind of power outages, this kind of road interruptions. It’s very unusual to be calling school and it’s 75 degrees and sunny and everybody appears to be having life as normal … I haven’t seen this level of infrastructure damage in my 30 years in education.”

Both superintendents said power outages in school buildings and the fact that many roads were not safe for school buses were the main reasons students were kept home all week.

In Gainesville, Williams said Mundy Mill Academy and Gainesville High were the only ones to lose power, and both had power restored by the end of the week. Transportation Director Jerry Castleberry said there were still four roads Friday that buses could not travel on and that he and transportation department mechanics would ride through bus routes over the weekend to make sure the roads could handle buses.

“The biggest challenge has been access to our roads,” Williams said. “When you can’t get kids to school, obviously learning is not going to take place. One of my biggest concerns was, as early as some of our bus riders are picked up, when you already have power out and not knowing what lines are around you and what’s hanging, there’s no way you can feel comfortable putting a kid out waiting on a bus.”

Schofield said “20-plus schools” in Hall County were without power at some point during the week. Power was restored to all schools by Thursday, but there were still 80 roads officials deemed unsafe for buses Thursday. Bus drivers were taking their cars on routes several days last week to determine if the routes were safe for buses.

“With that number of impassible roads, there’s just no way we can put our buses down roads that we have thousands of students,” he said.  “The other thing is with a lot of teen drivers you don’t want them out driving to school when there’s power lines in trees and roads closed.”

Schofield and Williams said there was no major damage to school buildings from the storm.

“We were very fortunate that we didn’t have big trees falling on buildings and major structural damage,” Schofield said. “We had a lot of little damage. Apparently we have probably lost a couple of buses in terms of trees falling on buses. One clearly was a total loss. There were a lot of leaks and wind damage, but no signs of major damage.”

Adrian Niles, director of maintenance and operations for the city schools, said there was no significant damage at city schools.

“We fared well,” Niles said.  

Both districts lost some food in schools where power outages occurred. Penny Fowler, director of school nutrition for the Gainesville district, wrote in an email Friday that  the schools had lost about $1,100 worth of food because of the storm. Cheryl Jones, Hall County director of school nutrition, said preliminary reports indicated her district lost about $1,300 worth of food. A final number is expected this week.

“The good news is that we only had two days of food in the freezer and minimal cooler items because we receive food orders on Mondays and Tuesdays,” Jones said in an email Friday.

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