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Pamlico County returns to school in the wake of Hurricane Florence

Pamlico County is situated squarely between two water ways and, with the passing of Hurricane Florence, the community of 13,000 saw flood waters from the Bay River infiltrate from the north and South Prong River from the south — leaving some of the community under water for a week.
Ahead of its impact, officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of the county on September 11. When those who could return did, they found a flooded and battered community. Especially difficult was the impact on local schools. After the storm, 137 county students remain displaced from their homes, seeking refuge in local shelters, with family or — in some somber instances — trying to make do in residences not yet fit for habitation. Six students remain outside the county, having trouble making their way back after seeking refuge from the storm. 
Despite the devastation, three of the four county public schools were able to open their doors to resume classes last Thursday. Considering the damage and aftermath felt by neighboring counties, Superintendent Lisa Jackson found the silver lining in this.
“As bad as things were in Pamlico County, we are in the minority in our region that we are back in school,” Jackson said. “Us and Lenoir County are the only ones that have students back in school as of today. So we are very, very fortunate.”

Middle school challenges

Though relatively fortunate, the impact on the county’s middle school was debilitating. The campus remains shut down indefinitely and students are finding temporary academic residence elsewhere. Indeed, when the kindergarteners, first, and second-graders at Pamlico County Primary School returned to class after nearly two weeks off, they were met with a confusing sight.
“What are all the parents doing in the music room?” one student asked.
Tall though they must have seemed to the little ones, it was just the seventh-graders from Pamlico County Middle School attending class in borrowed space. Upon learning that the damage at the middle school was too great to allow classes to resume there, officials creatively addressed the situation, finding sixth-graders space at Fred Anderson Elementary School and seventh and eighth-graders space at Pamlico County Primary School. In all, 350 middle school faculty and students have been diverted to the elementary schools.
“We’re anxiously awaiting the day we get to go home,” Jeremy Johnson, principal of the middle school, said. “It’s difficult. It’s traumatic … Outside of our own personal homes, it’s where we spend a tremendous amount of time. It is home away from home. This happened twice in seven years and it’s hard to endure.”

Furniture stacked in a lobby at Pamlico County middle school. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

The last time the middle school students and faculty were displaced, in 2011 following Hurricane Irene, they were relocated for eight months. Jackson believes it will be much shorter this time. But for now, both displaced faculty and students, as well as unwitting hosts, are doing their best. On a given lunchtime at the elementary schools, you might see kindergarteners giving up their seats so the “big kids” can sit at the table. Or, over in the gymnasium, you could find middle school students set up for lunch on folding tables they brought over from their flooded campus. They eat in the gymnasium and, after lunch, they fold them back up and push them to the side so they can have physical education class.
“We’re better together,” Johnson said. “We’re going to be [even] better when we all get back together [at the middle school], but together our staffs are making a difference.”
Meanwhile, amid the damage at the middle school, efforts are ongoing to salvage what property they can. When volunteers and service crews re-entered the school for the first time following the storm, the odor was foul. Marks along the lower wall of the cafeteria showed that flood waters rose and sat at about 20 inches high. In some areas, eels and snakes were found. Nearby, fallen trees littered the ground. And while this is a familiar scene in Florence’s wake, these were 70- and 80-footers.  

 Much of the furniture has been ruined. The floor and ceiling tiles all had to be removed because humidity and remaining moisture threatened black mold. And the entire library collection was taken to the gym and each book opened to dry and release moisture. Happily, all of the books were saved.
“It’s a process,” Johnson said.

Salvaging instruction time

While repair efforts are underway, teachers and administrators are working hard to address lost instruction time. County students missed 11.5 days of school, and while the General Assembly is expected to assist schools by waiving minimum required days in the school year, teachers remain responsible for covering important material and preparing students for end-of-grade exams.
“That missed instruction is extremely, extremely critical,” Jackson said. “It’s critical everywhere, but it’s especially critical at the high school where you’re on the block schedule. One day is two days, so 10 days is 20 days.”
The school calendar approved prior to the year’s start had built in extra instruction time in case of an emergent event such as Florence, and officials are working on a revised calendar and searching for places to make up days. On Monday, the Board of Education approved canceling the October 8 optional teacher work day and proceeding with a regular school day. Officials are also looking at extending the semester as well as examining upcoming scheduled breaks to find makeup days and hope to present a revised schedule next month.
In the schools, teachers and faculty are trying to ensure that kids can find normalcy within the abnormal situation they find themselves. 
“We’re excited to get normal again,” Primary School principal Crystal Dixon said. “It was an adjustment for the big kids, but it was like starting all over again for kindergarten and pre-K.”
Nevertheless, teachers were able to administer beginning-of-grade examinations and report surprise at the focus of the students, who they say seem happy just to be back at school.

Ongoing assistance efforts

The property damage at the middle school is widespread and by far the most significant, with Assistant Superintendent Steven Curtis roughly estimating the damage at $1.5 million. The area’s three remaining schools will require an estimated $10,000-$20,000 in repairs each. The money, they hope, will come in the form of insurance proceeds and state assistance.
Of the 115 school districts in the state, 68 rely exclusively on insurance from the Department of Public Instruction  — placing Pamlico County in the enviable minority which has independent flood insurance. Other districts which rely on DPI are finding that exclusions and exceptions in their policies may leave them falling through the cracks. For instance, while their policy may cover wind damage to property, it would not for wind-driven rain damage.
“You are really lucky compared to some of the other school systems we’re dealing with,” attorney Richard Schwartz told the Pamlico County Board of Education.

Pamlico County Board of Education meeting. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

While dodging this challenge may help get the middle school up and running sooner, officials are looking further downstream and considering how to avoid issues from future storms. The school is situated on flood-prone land, as seen in 2011 and presently. School officials had an opportunity to meet with Governor Cooper and select state legislators, and felt some hope on its way.  
Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, took one look at the middle school and said, “We’ve got to build y’all a new middle school. You’ve got to get out of there.”

“We spent a lot of time politicking for that,” Jackson said. “So just know we’re not going to let that die.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.