Thousands of Louisiana students out of school after Ida

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — About 70,000 students across southeast Louisiana remain out of school because of Hurricane Ida’s destruction to classroom buildings a month ago, state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told lawmakers Tuesday.

That’s nearly 1 in 10 of Louisiana’s K-12 students — largely in Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes — who remain idled by the Category 4 storm, which wrecked several parishes when it struck Aug. 29.

More than 300,000 students were forced out of school immediately after Ida, but many have returned to class as power and water were restored across the region.

“Frankly, I am impressed with the speed that this is taking place,” Brumley told the Senate Education Committee. “These system leaders have done an excellent job.”

But in the hardest-hit areas, Ida flooded schools, ripped off classroom roofs, blew out parts of buildings and wrecked buses, making it more difficult to get children back into learning environments. Internet service is out in areas, making virtual learning impossible. And some teachers and school staff are living out of their districts because their homes were destroyed or heavily damaged.

More schools reopened this week, and others are scheduled to come online throughout October.

Lafourche Parish Schools Superintendent Jarod Martin said 10 of its 30 schools reopened Monday, with more restarts planned in the coming weeks. St. Charles Superintendent Ken Oertling said a quarter of his parish’s 19 school sites should reopen next week, while others could take weeks longer. Two high schools will have to share space on one campus, he said.

“It’s kind of hard to comprehend the amount of damage,” Oertling said.

He said the school district gave each student a Chromebook laptop ahead of Ida to ready for virtual learning if schools were heavily damaged. But he said online learning is “not an option” for his schools right now.

“We have no internet,” Oertling said. “Electricity returned last week,” but the parish still faces rolling outages.

Brumley didn’t have an estimate for the rebuilding costs for school damage but expected it would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although school systems have insurance coverage, testimony from individual systems Tuesday suggested that wouldn’t be enough to cover the full repair costs, leaving assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fill the gaps.

For example, Martin said the Lafourche Parish school system has $20 million in property insurance coverage but estimates repair and mitigation costs will top $100 million. The school district’s annual budget is $126 million a year for its 14,000 students.

But FEMA aid involves bureaucratic hurdles and provides reimbursement after money is spent.

The superintendents didn’t get much encouragement Tuesday from the experiences that Calcasieu Parish Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus described in seeking reimbursement for his schools’ rebuilding costs related to Hurricane Laura. That storm ravaged southwest Louisiana when it roared ashore as a Category 4 storm in August 2020.

Every school has reopened in Calcasieu Parish, but some are still under repair and have leaks whenever it rains, Bruchhaus said. The school district borrowed money to help cover upfront rebuilding costs while awaiting FEMA reimbursement, but the superintendent said construction on school repairs had to shut down because the district is having cash flow problems awaiting more than $120 million in expected FEMA payments.

“On the construction side, we’re out of cash. That’s been a challenge,” Bruchhaus said.

In addition, the state’s homeland security office has been sitting for months on a few million dollars in FEMA reimbursements owed to the school district while reviewing paperwork and contracts to ensure they meet federal requirements.

“That’s unacceptable, unreasonable and unconscionable,” said Senate Education Chairman Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat.

Under pressure from lawmakers, homeland security Director James Waskom pledged to send the Calcasieu Parish school system a check Wednesday for any money it was withholding for its paperwork review.

But Bruchhaus said he needs the heftier amounts awaiting payment from FEMA for months to resume construction work on school buildings.

Sen. Bodi White, a Republican whose Baton Rouge area district saw severe flooding in 2016, warned that FEMA moves slowly, but that the federal agency is critical to recovery.

“It’s just going to take patience, a lot,” White said.


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