As of Friday, all students attending Lee County schools have resumed their education, either in a school building or through Florida Virtual FLEX.
Pine Island Elementary School reopened to students on Friday.
Opening all school buildings that could be reopened and the rest of students learning virtually or in combined schools are just the beginning of the recovery process, said Lee County School District Superintendent Dr. Christopher Bernier .
Hurricane Irma had a $50 million impact on the school district with the potential to add another zero to that number as buildings are extensively damaged, he said.
This is a reality the district may face simply to restore schools to their previous state, which does not include the three schools that have suffered a severe blow: Sanibel School, Fort Myers Beach and Hector A. Cafferata, Jr. Elementary School in Cap Corail.
“We still have more assessments to do on these buildings as well,” Bernier said.
Sanibel School and Fort Myers Beach Elementary School are combined schools with San Carlos Elementary School for the duration.
Audrey Stuart, Sanibel Island resident, business owner and mother of two at the Sanibel school, spoke to council on Tuesday. She shared that last Friday nearly 100 parents joined a Zoom call, which Superintendent’s Office Coordinator Adam Molloy attended.
“As you know, Sanibel School is a special place with a rich history,” she said, adding that they want to be part of the cleanup and rebuilding, ready to help in any way they can.
Kate Shaffer, also a Sanibel resident with two children at Sanibel School and a member of the Sanibel School Fund, said she is organizing rescue team committees to form a direct line of communication with the district, as well as the creation of a School District Liaison Committee.
“We are ready to help you in your efforts. We look forward to working with you,” she says.
Bernier said there is a clear expectation from the community and looking at next week they will start having these interactions.
“There are tough decisions, dump and rebuild, or rebuild. There are other discussions we need to have. We will sit down and discuss your thoughts and expectations and our thoughts and expectations,” he said of the upcoming deadlines.
Bernier said the same goes for Fort Myers Beach Elementary School and Hector A. Cafferata, Jr. Elementary School as well.
The district works with Imperium Consulting Group, LLC for FEMA and insurance consulting services.
“We follow FEMA guidelines to ensure that every dollar we qualify for we will receive,” Bernier said.
He indicated that they are in the first phase of recovery, remediation and stabilization. On October 6, the District contracted Cotton Commercial USA, Inc., Lemoine Disaster Recovery, LLC., Royal Plus, and Signal USA, LLC to provide stabilization and remediation services to District facilities.
He said they are “seal the envelope” — seal walls, roofs, windows and doors to prevent further water intrusion. These are temporary fixes.
All 88 schools returned to school on Friday as all schools passed the final checkpoint of an indoor air quality test.
“Contractors, to return a building to us, must do an indoor air quality test. They are responsible and accountable for the restoration of an unsanitary building,” he said.
On Monday, 13 schools opened; Tuesday 16 schools open; 48 schools on Wednesday; three schools on Thursday and three schools on Friday.
“All facilities that can open are open”, Bernier said. “Diplomat and Lexington begin their program on October 21.”
There are five schools that have not yet opened, but students share a campus with another school or participate in a virtual school.
“They have the opportunity to continue learning with their teachers,” he says of students at Diplomat Middle and Lexington Middle School.
On October 17, when 13 schools opened, Bernier said 82% of students had returned to school. With 29 schools on October 18, attendance rose to 90.9%. Bernier said the numbers can be as high as 99% attendance at one building and as low as 64% at another school.
Staff actively research where students have been, where they are now, and how the district can help them return to school. He said as they begin to get information from other districts and have to send in cumulative files, they will know where students might go.
“It will take another two weeks before we have an idea of who is coming to school, who can still come,” Bernier said. “We’re going to start being able to track our students that we could potentially lose.”
As for bus attendance on the first two days of school, it varied between 80 and 83%.
“Transportation wasn’t exactly the high point of Lee County School District operations before Ian,” Bernier said. “I encourage parents to look at where the bus stops are. Don’t put your child in danger. You are always welcome to drive your child to the school building, or arrange with a neighbor.
He said they were working with the state to clear debris from bus stops.
On October 13, 85.38% of TALC employees returned to work, which rose to 94% on Tuesday. Eighty-five point 71% of SPALC employees returned on October 13, which rose again to 91.15% on Tuesday.
Bernier said this shows an incredible reduction in employees.
Two hundred teachers have self-identified as homeless, Bernier said, who have been matched with vouchers with the county and they work with FEMA with travel trailers.
“If we can’t keep them here, they have a professional shingle they can take somewhere else,” Bernier said. “We reached out to the faith community,” he said, adding that this has been mobilized, providing an incredible window.
Board member Gwyn Gittens said a Survey Monkey is ready to match someone who has a room for a teacher.
“A Survey Monkey was done and the committee decided to work with the faith group in partnership with the Collaboratory. The inquiry goes directly to the Collaboratory and they also have the list of staff needs and so they are able to match people,” she says.
When individuals complete the form, which can be found at www.leeschools.net, the Collaboratory will contact them.
“We are also working with the county on providing housing. There’s a huge effort going on.” she says.
The second phase of Hurricane Ian after will be repairing what was hit and the third phase is long term new buildings, or emptying buildings and starting over inside. Bernier said the new flood line will likely be 12 to 15 feet high.
He has yet to figure out how to build a building in the air to accommodate this.
As for the timing for the rest of the year, Bernier said he has already opened up dialogue regarding forgiveness days. The calendar committee meets, along with parent members to ensure recommendations are brought forward and heard. A recommendation from the Calendar Committee will be presented to the Board early next week.
Bernier said they are now 26 days into emergency operation, 20 days from the storm and 14 days of missed school.