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After Florence, Robeson County finally goes back to school

It’s her first day back in school after five weeks, and as she heads off to her bus, a fifth grader at Gilbert Carroll Middle School in Lumberton spots a familiar face. She stops on a dime and dashes toward Principal Tony Britt, meeting him with a huge hug.

“We haven’t seen each other in all this time,” Britt says to the beaming student. 

Normally, she reports to the principal’s office every Monday morning to start her week off with a hug. But it’s been 24 days since Robeson County Schools have been in session due to damage from Hurricane Florence. On Tuesday — with a return to normalcy — friends, teachers, and administrators shared joy, hugs, and warm greetings in the halls and classrooms across the county’s 40 schools.

“It’s about like coming in all over again,” Britt said. “But our [teachers] were ready to come back in. I think all of us were.”

He recalled the number of calls he received every day from his teachers.

“Can we come back in?” they’d ask, willing just to come in and volunteer. But schools still hadn’t passed air tests, Britt told them. So the calls would pause, but just for a moment. When the air test results were published through the media the phone rang again.

“Can we come in now?” teachers asked.

“No,” Britt had to respond. 

“Why not?”

“Because they said we can’t,” Britt recalled with a laugh. “Everybody was so ready to come back. And I think all around [the county], everybody was ready to come back. I’m that way. I can’t sit around anyway. I need to be here and moving.”

They’re finally back. Fortunately, there were no major issues getting the kids to schools. After the storm, hundreds of roads were impacted and many were under water. That number was down to six before Robeson schools reopened, and only three roads caused significant bus re-routing. Bus drivers prepared for the unexpected by practicing bus routes over the weekend.

The flooding outside of Carroll Middle School after the storm. Courtesy of Robeson County Schools

“If there wasn’t enough space or they were worried they might not be able to turn around, they went and knocked on the doors and asked people if they could use their driveway to turn around,” Public Relations Officer Tasha Oxendine said.

In the classrooms, teachers went to work with their students. Despite missing so many days, the first order of business was not instruction. The first item listed on the white boards of many classrooms is the same: “Check in.”

“It is very important to connect with them because we haven’t in so long, and they’ve suffered a lot of loss,” science teacher Melissa Dunson said. “The most important thing before we even start teaching is to find out where they are emotionally and check on their well-being to see if they’ve lost things or if they’re back in their homes. Because it’s stressful.”

She has students who are still displaced, though the majority seem to be in their homes and doing well. Others are curious about their friends and want to talk about what they’ve seen over the past month. The students are receiving packets which include questionnaires from social services attempting to discover which students have needs — for school supplies or everyday, personal items. As the common denominator in county kids’ lives, the schools are playing an integral part in identifying these needs.

“We’re emotional,” Britt said. “But they’re kids. They’re emotional, too. So that was the most important thing I wanted to get across to all the teachers. Just make sure we tend to [the students’] needs first.”

A home that was gutted and still has debris outside. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

After touching base with their students, teachers hit the next most important lesson: the rules. It’s been more than a month, and students may need a reminder. 

“You have to,” Dunson said. “You have to go over the class expectations and the rules, as well as our goals. I think it’s just a day where we’re feeling things out again, then I think we’ll be back to where things were before the flood.”

“Consistency is most important. If I’m persistent with each class, every day, they’ll know what I expect from them. That’s what we’re working on: consistency and that stability and getting back into that routine.”

Truly, judging by an afternoon spent at Carroll, the students just seem happy to be back in school and amongst their friends. They’re boisterous at times but not unruly. And they’re taking direction after being reminded of classroom expectations.

“I remember the rules,” says fourth grader Dakota McGirt. “But the work — you have to get used to it again to start understanding it.”

The day is winding on and, in Robeson County Teacher of the Year Sibyl King’s classroom, this means going over pronoun practice with her third and final block of kids. A student stands before a touchscreen and circles his answer to King’s question. She looks at him with her head tilted, smiling gently.

“Are you sure?” she asks. “You weren’t gone that long.”

He’s been gone a long time, but she’s right, he’s learned this before. He reassess and revises, quickly finding the correct response.

“Alright,” King says, smiling and turning to address the rest of the class. “What’s the next part in our notes.” And she continues the review.

Scenes like this are playing out county-wide. Next door, in Dunson’s class, the students are playing some variation of a quiz bowl to review material from the first 11 days of school.

“Some of the things we went over before the flood they got, but it just needs to be reiterated throughout the year because it’s a lot of knowledge to process,” Dunson said. “In the first three weeks, we had a lot of instruction. [In our class] we had a lot of vocabulary words. So we’re trying to re-learn them. We’re re-learning and learning at the same time.”

Measures taken during the break attempted to keep students from falling too far behind. Across the county, teachers posted online resources for their students to help parents keep their children engaged. For families without internet, the schools kept packets of materials to be picked up two days a week.

As the day closes and the kids have checked in, rules and expectations have been re-set, and reviews are winding down, the fatigue is evident. In students’ eyes, as well as in teachers’.

“It’s third block, and I’m almost drained,” Dunson says, laughing. “But you got to keep going. They’re tired; I’m tired. But you got to keep going. And I’m just happy we’re all back here.”

She speaks for many. 

“There is a renewed spirit among us,” Superintendent Shanita Wooten wrote in a letter to parents. “Our roles are clearer. We will help students be resilient and look to the future with optimism and courage. From the storm comes opportunity … an opportunity for growth.” 

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC. He exists to shine light, including by telling stories about under-reported issues.