(BATON ROUGE, La.) — In Southeastern Louisiana, where communities are reeling from deadly flooding that hit the Baton Rouge area on Aug. 12, many families worry not only about being displaced from their homes, but also what’s next in store for their children as some schools’ doors remain shuttered.
One of those students without a school is Parker Simoneaux, a senior at Denham Springs High School in Denham Springs, one of the most hard-hit areas. He was a little more than a week into the school year when the torrential downpours severely flooded the school, forcing it to close.
He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return to the classroom.
“They have not set a start date yet,” Simoneaux told ABC News. “No one really knows. But they guaranteed that we will still get all of our education in.”
Simoneaux, who enrolled in Honors Physics this year, hopes to become a physical therapist.
“I’m ready to graduate. I’ll do whatever I have to do to graduate this year,” he said.
But now he’s displaced from his home. He’s currently staying with a friend, “but for a week or two it was wherever I ended up,” he said.
He’s not worried about falling behind in school but he’s itching to get back.
“It would just bring back some normalcy,” Simoneaux said.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has called the flooding, which killed at least 13 people, “unprecedented” and “historic.” Edwards declared a major disaster for the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was called in to provide resources and funding to help with recovery efforts.
The flooding damaged or destroyed more than 60,000 homes, officials said, and 102,000 people have registered for federal assistance. Twenty-four school districts were closed at some point as a result of flooding, according the Louisiana Department of Education.
Three of David Averett’s children also attend Denham Spring High School. Every home on their street was destroyed and the Averett family is now displaced.
Averett said his children “couldn’t wait to go to school this year.”
But now “the classrooms, they lost everything,” said his son, 11th-grader Conlan Averett. And in the meantime, he has nothing to keep him busy. “There is nothing to study,” he said.
His brother, 10th-grader Landon, planned on joining the fishing team this year. But he isn’t concerned about when they’ll be back. “They’ll figure it out,” he said.
For Denham Springs High School Principal Kelly Jones, the school was “my home.”
“I graduated from there in 1992,” Jones told ABC News.
“I stayed until the floodwaters came in,” he said. “And as soon as the waters left, two days later, I was back in the school assessing the damage.”
The damage to Denham Springs High School was severe, with all but six classrooms flooded, said Jones.
“To see the students and hold conversations with the students, that was the hardest part of the whole thing,” Jones said. “That was harder than seeing the school go underwater.”
No matter how quickly they can open the doors, Jones said, a lot of students are still displaced, and some of them will be forced to transfer out of his school because they are no longer in the Denham Springs area.
“Almost everyone who lost their homes lost their cars as well,” Jones said. “Because of the lost cars, we would probably double the number of bus riders at Denham Springs High School.”
In neighboring East Baton Rouge Parish, school officials echoed Jones’ worries. East Baton Rouge Parish students were in school for just two days when the flooding hit, and will remain out of school until Sept. 6, Adonica Duggan, spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, told ABC News, adding that she is unsure how students will make up the missed days.
“We do not have this many contingency days built into our schedules. It is not uncommon for the state to grant waivers of some make-up days in times of natural disaster,” Duggan said. “We would all like for our students to return to school as quickly as possible, but we have significant transportation issues to address before we can be sure that resuming school will be successful.”
Tania Nyman, an East Baton Rouge Parish school district parent, is looking for ways to keep her sixth-grader and fourth-grader occupied.
The family wasn’t displaced from their home, so while they’re at the house, Nyman said she’s making sure her kids keep busy by reading or practicing their multiplication tables.
And she’s taken the free time to teach them in other ways.
“I’m making them help me cook,” Nyman said. “We did some volunteer work.
“For us, we are having the challenge of making sure we have productive days at home,” she added. “I am more concerned trying to create something of a schedule so they don’t just sit in front of a television or sit on their devices all day.”
Nyman said she remains hopeful that the school district will be able to make up for the lost school days.
“I am not concerned about them falling behind, I am sure that they will make up the instructional days and they will be just fine in the long run,” Nyman said. “The challenge for us to get back up and running is that a lot of students need to be bussed, and they lost a lot of school buses.”
St. Joseph’s Academy, a Catholic school in Baton Rouge, resumed classes this week, said high school science teacher Linda Messina. But just because students are back in school doesn’t mean their lives are back to normal.
“We’ve had so many students and faculty and staff members who hold our school together lose everything,” Messina said. “They were totally flooded up to their ceilings.”
Despite the devastation, Messina, one of four teachers from Louisiana being honored by President Obama for excellence in mathematics and science teaching, is still trying to encourage the students in educational pursuits.
“One of my students said, ‘Ms. Messina the first thing I saved was my science fair project!’” she said.
What Happens Now?
As of Thursday, five of Louisiana’s local education agencies (LEAs) remain completely or partially closed, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.
“There are school buildings in open LEAs that are not in a condition [to] have children in them but they have either placed students in other schools in the LEA or found alternate space,” Bridget Devlin of the Louisiana Department of Education told ABC News. “All students in open LEAs have a place to go to school.”
And for the five LEAs still closed or partially closed, four have reopen dates — two on Monday, Aug. 29, and two on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
Livingston, the LEA that includes Denham Springs High School, doesn’t have a start date.
Despite the uncertainty for Denham Springs High School, Jones, the principal, remains optimistic.
“Whatever we do, we’re going to keep Denham Springs High School alive and well,” he said. “So they’ll have to find a location for our students to go intact as one student body.”
Sarita Fritzler with Save the Children, a group working on the ground in Baton Rouge to help displaced children, said, “When it comes to learning, being out of school for two to four additional weeks on top of a two-month summer vacation can set children back for a long time.”
“Many children, especially those living in poverty, already tend to slide back in math and reading achievement up to two to three months over the course of the summer,” Fritzler said. “The most vulnerable children will now be even further behind by the time school starts, and it will be even harder for them to catch up. This can have a serious detrimental effect on children’s ability to succeed in school and life.”
“Really this disaster could haunt the rest of their lives if they don’t have access to continued learning,” Fritzler said, “not to mention the risks they face of serious emotional repercussions.
“Under normal circumstances, children might be excited to have their summer vacation extended, and there are surely kids in the area who still feel that way,” Fritzler said. “But the children who have been most affected by this disaster are feeling very shaken right now and they really need to feel a sense of normalcy again.”
East Baton Rouge’s Chief of Academic Programs Andrea O’Konski told ABC News she is hoping students can still use days out of school to further their education.
“We are fortunate that many of our families still have access to online resources and educational apps,” she said. “Our public library system is up and running, and they have created satellite mobile units across the area.
“This is a teachable moment,” O’Konski added. “There are so many opportunities for learning to take place around these current events. Students can explore the flooding in terms of geographical maps and elevations, government functions, weather and environmental science.
“We are encouraging parents to have students drawing and journaling as is age-appropriate to express their feelings on what they have seen and heard,” she said. “We also encourage parents not to neglect the importance of physical activity during this time. We have been so proud of so many of our students who have taken this opportunity to volunteer in cleanup and recovery efforts serving through various extracurricular clubs, athletic teams and school groups.”
And she recommends that high school students “use this time to research college and career opportunities and take advantage of entrance exam study resources.”
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