School leaders are continuing to work through transportation challenges in the Union District after Hurricane Florence disrupted classes and damaged roads.
During a work session, the Sampson County Schools (SCS) Board of Education discussed travel routes and school days affected by the incident. Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy reported that it appears that no major flooding problems happened when it comes school buildings. But getting students to the buildings continues to be an issue.
“Some people still don’t have power in the southern part of the county,” Bracy said. “Some of the road conditions are still challenging.”
The General Assembly will hold a special session in early October to deal with hurricane recovery. Bracy reported legislative actions which will not force districts to schedule make-up days if their county was declared a disaster area. Most of the counties that were not declared as disaster areas, are given two to three days of forgiveness.
“Everybody knows that we missed eight consecutive school days,” Bracy said.
Along with Bracy, Mark Hammond, director of auxiliary services, and Transportation Director Vicki Westbrook, provided updates regarding the situation with roads and buildings.When it comes to transportation, Westbrook reported that Lakewood, Hobbton and the Midway portions of the district have good conditions.
“We still have a few issues, but we’ve been able to ride around those,” she said.
A lot of issues continue in the Union District. Westbrook praised the work of the North Carolina Department of Transportation for their efforts.
“They’ve done a lot of work, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Westbrook said. “We’ve got roads that are completely washed out and some that are just half a road, which makes it hard for our buses.”
Two drivers in the Ivanhoe area are on the opposite side of the cutoff. They cannot travel through Sampson, but they can cut through Pender County to reach the district.
“I talked to a number of our drivers today and they said ‘if we need to go, we’ll make it happen,’” she said. “They’ll do what they need to do.”
Board Chairmain Tim Register and other officials such as Bracy and Board Member Sonya Powell, visited the area to assess the flooding situation. Register emphasized that safety is a priority when it comes to students and employees. It’s estimated that about 20 students are cut off due to flooding.
While discussing plans to handle the situations, one scenario involved cancelling school in the Union District for a longer period of time, while the three other areas resume classes. Register expressed how it would not be a good idea, although it’s been done before.
“It created, I guess you can say, one of the most intense situations that the Board of Education has ever been in, if you were there,” Register said while talking about Hurricane Floyd in September 1999.
During Floyd, the Union District lost about 18 days of instructional time, which required the district to extend the school year. This came with concerns like late graduation ceremonies.
“It just got ugly,” Register said. “We even had teachers and staff members in other parts of the county complaining because the Union folks were not having to go to work, and they were having to go to work. It’s amazing the controversy that was created. If there’s anyway we can avoid that, I think we need to do that.”
He continued and said it’s important that the Ivanhoe area is not forgotten and that the best place for students is to be in school.
Vice Chair Kim Schmidlin brought up drop off points for Union students cutoff.
“I don’t want to send Union back, knowing that we have 20 students that we can’t get to,” she said. “That’s not a good solution neither.”
Westbrook said it’s been done before after Hurricane Matthew. Powell stressed that complaints were made from working parents.
“They said it was the biggest disaster and the biggest mess that has ever occurred,” Powell said. “Parents had to go to work and take their kids to the pick-up point early, and that left kids unsupervised for extended periods of time and they thought that it was an atrocity that young children would be at a pick-up point, waiting, unsupervised.”
To help transportation officials with the situation, a suggestion was made to cancel school Tuesday, Sept. 25, and have an optional workday for staff. Students are scheduled to return Wednesday, Sept. 26, with a two-hour delay.
“If the days are going to be forgiven, I personally feel that we’re better off keeping everybody on the same schedule,” Register said.
Board members were in favor of the action. As a parent, Board Member Tracy Dunn said safety is the utmost important matter to her.
“I think all parents will agree with that as well and, if one more day makes a difference, I think it would be a good idea on behalf of the board,” said Dunn.
With students displaced or unreachable by bus, Schmidlin reiterated the idea of a having a drop-off point for parents. Westbrook said a couple of pick-up points will probably be need to be announced in the future. Bracy said staff members will supervise the process at the locations.
The majority of building problems were a result of windy conditions and repairs will be covered by insurance. Carpets were damaged, but they are being cleaned. Staff members are fixing other minor issues such as roof leaks, downed trees and fences.
Bracy commended Hammond and staff members for their work when various schools through the district were used as shelters. He added that custodians worked back-to-back days as well.
“Some of our principals manned the shelters,” Bracy said. “Cafeteria workers, nurses, Red Cross did a wonderful job helping us out.”
In the future, Register and Schmidlin said they would like to have a debriefing and better understanding of operating procedures between the district, county and emergency management officials. The suggestion was made in an effort to have less problems in the future. Bracy plans to meet with county officials to discuss the matter.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.