HOUSTON (AP) — The first day of classes for students in Houston on Monday was filled with the excitement of meeting new teachers and making new friends, while also allowing the nation's fourth-largest city to return normalcy to an area still wending its way through the healing process following massive flooding from Harvey.
Students "are excited to be back. Parents are excited to get students out of the house, to get them back to something normal, to be with their friends," said school secretary Demitra Cain as she greeted students and parents outside Codwell Elementary. The longtime school district employee said she had probably given out at least 200 hugs on the first day of the new school year, which was delayed by two weeks due to Harvey.
Superintendent Richard Carranza said the new school year was "going to be a year of not only incredible academic achievement, but it's going to be a year of healing."
None of the district's more than 300 schools and facilities escaped without some impact from the tropical storm, Carranza said. The district estimates Harvey caused at least $700 million in damage to schools and other buildings as well as other costs.
Students at 268 of the Houston school district's 284 campuses started classes on Monday. Houston has the nation's seventh-largest school system, with about 215,000 students.
Some of the students who returned to school on Monday included many of the less than 1,500 students who remain at shelters because their homes and apartments were flooded. The district bused these students from shelters to their campuses, officials said.
The remaining campuses will start classes on Tuesday, Sept. 18 and Sept. 25 due to ongoing clean up and repairs from Harvey, which last month dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some areas around Houston.
Nine campuses were so severely damaged that their students will have to be temporarily relocated to vacant district buildings or transferred to nearby schools and three of these campuses likely will be closed for repairs the entire school year. These nine campuses served about 6,500 students last year.
"We are working hard to make sure that we're going to be as normal as normal can be, given the circumstance. We know the quicker we can get students into a routine, it allows mom and dad to get into a routine. It allows the healing to begin," said Carranza after visiting with students at Codwell Elementary and helping serve some of them breakfast. "So we've burned the midnight oil for the last two weeks to make sure we can get as many schools up and running today."
For students who didn't start on Monday or who have been staying in shelters, teachers and community groups have been working with them to ensure they get organized instructional activity until they return to the classroom, Carranza said.
Chitiquita Myers, who dropped off her 9-year-old son James at Codwell Elementary, said the start of the new school year will give all her seven children a chance to focus on something good and forget about the fear they felt during the tropical storm. Myers said her home did not flood but her kids were scared and "slept in their closets" during the torrential rainfall.
"They're doing good now. All night (Sunday) they were talking about going to school," said Myers, 33.
At a news conference with Carranza, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he will continue working with the school district to offer students and their families whatever help they need from the city and local community groups.
"The city, along with our partners, are working to make sure (students') homes are livable. There is a lot of work to be done," Turner said. "There is no better way to demonstrate to the rest of the world that this city is open than for them to see kids in our schools and learning."
Other school districts in the Houston area have also had to make adjustments due to damage from Harvey.
In the Houston suburb of Humble, Summer Creek High School will share its building for the entire school year with students from Kingwood High School, which was severely damaged. In the Katy school district, students at Creech Elementary will attend classes at an unused satellite location belonging to the University of Houston until repairs to their campus can be completed.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70