Days after Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the Gulf Coast in the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, state and local education officials in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and elsewhere were hard at work seeking to ensure students affected by the storm could return to school, and a normal routine, as soon as possible.

Health and sheer survival, not academics, were the foremost concerns of families affected by the storm. But as residents evacuated those areas hardest hit by Katrina and found temporary shelter elsewhere, complex schooling issues awaited them.

Finding schools for students whose families were displaced or whose schools were destroyed, communicating plans with local school leaders and stakeholders, accounting for the whereabouts of all students in their jurisdictions, transferring academic records to students’ new or temporary schools, rebuilding schools that were damaged or leveled by the storm–these were just some of the challenges facing education officials on the Gulf Coast, neighboring states, and in states thousands of miles away. And technology would be called on to play a key role in nearly every facet of the response.

Scope of the destruction

Katrina damaged or destroyed schools in six Louisiana parishes and left more than 135,000 students in that state without classrooms, according to the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE).

An LDE spokeswoman on Sept. 1 said that all information education officials had at their disposal was posted on the department’s web site. The agency’s office was inundated with telephone calls as education officials tried to hold meetings to discuss their next steps.

“I implore superintendents around the state to take these children in,” said Cecil Picard, Louisiana’s superintendent of education, adding that his No. 1 priority was to get children back in school. “I have heard from many of them who are already doing so. To them, I say, Thank you.'”

Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish estimated that some schools would be unable to open until at least mid-January. The parish included a list of preliminary status reports for its schools online. Sixteen schools were reported in usable condition, eight were usable with isolated problems, six had significant damage, and the status of 54 schools was still unknown at press time.

Six of the nine schools in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish were under water at the time this story was filed. Jim Hoyle, Plaquemines Parish superintendent, said in a press release that officials were working to create a new payroll system for teachers and hoped to get some schools up and running within a month.

St. Charles Parish schools were all closed. Education officials were told that power would be restored in one to two weeks, and they hoped to resume classes shortly after power was restored.

Officials in St. Tammany Parish Public Schools aimed to have schools open by Oct. 3. The parish had a temporary operating center in LDE’s Baton Rouge offices. St. Bernard Parish officials said schools most likely would remain closed throughout the entire school year, and employees were encouraged to find other employment.

In Mississippi, state education officials were still trying to evaluate the damage caused by the storm as of press time.

“We have 271 schools in 44 districts that sustained damage,” said a Mississippi Department of Education spokeswoman. “That’s almost 160,000 students. This is a devastation that our state has not seen before.” Mississippi education officials were working with neighboring states to accommodate displaced children, she said.

Henry Johnson, Mississippi’s assistant secretary over elementary and secondary education and the former superintendent of schools in that state, said that in five or six coastal Mississippi counties, half the schools that existed before Hurricane Katrina have been leveled. The other half, he said, are so badly damaged that it’s unclear whether they can be used this year.

Alabama state officials also were still assessing the damage there at press time.

Mobile County was the hardest hit, said Rebecca Leigh White, an information specialist at the Alabama Department of Education, and officials did not foresee those schools opening until at least mid-September. Students whose schools sustained damage were to be transported to other nearby schools. “As far as a bigger scope, we are welcoming Mississippi’s and Louisiana’s displaced students into our schools with open arms,” White said.

Accommodating displaced students

With the work of emergency response teams winding down, the first priority for education officials was to ensure that students had some place to attend school.

Louisiana schools Superintendent Picard urged parents to sign up their children for school in those districts where they had sought shelter, and he said the LDE would worry later about school records, waivers, funding, and payrolls. “Right now, I need parents and school systems to make sure these children have the stability of a classroom as soon as possible,” he said.

Displaced teachers will be needed in those school systems that were taking in students, Picard said, and the LDE encouraged any able teacher to apply for a job in the school system where they had sought shelter. The agency said it was setting up teams to work on issues such as payroll and teaching certificates.

School districts that were not affected by the storm, or that were only mildly affected, opened their doors to accept students who were evacuated from their homes.

Louisiana parents who had to evacuate were able to register their children for school in Lafayette, Caddo, and Bossier parishes, state officials said.

Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent James Easton said some schools in southeast Louisiana could be closed indefinitely because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“We cannot allow these children to suffer any further by denying them an education. As long as they seek refuge in our parish, they may attend our schools, and they will be treated the same as any other students. We welcome them,” he said.

Easton said he had no idea whether his parish would be compensated by the state for serving these students. To help the transition, local families were asked to donate uniforms and school supplies.

Joseph B. Morton, Alabama’s schools superintendent, issued a memorandum online stating that he would waive the “usual and customary requirements for students who transfer into Alabama’s public schools from other states … due to circumstances caused by Hurricane Katrina.” Morton acknowledged that those displaced students most likely escaped the storm with little or nothing and have no way to access birth certificates, school records, or other such documents.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry promised that his state’s public schools would accept students from stranded families. That move came as New Orleans residents who took shelter in the Superdome were bused to the Astrodome in Houston, where officials said Houston schools were preparing to accommodate these displaced children.

Perry said he knew an influx of students would strain his schools, but he assured school leaders they would get help with textbooks, transportation, food, and waivers on class sizes.

The Texas Education Agency announced on its web site that children of families who have temporarily relocated to Texas will generally meet the definition of “homeless,” and federal law entitles those students to enroll in the school district in which they are physically present without having to document residency in the district.

“We will do everything we can to welcome these students and return some form of stability to the lives of these youngsters,” said Shirley J. Neeley, the Texas commissioner of education. Neeley predicted that thousands of storm refugees would be enrolling in Texas schools, most within the Houston area.

Besides dealing with the obvious logistical challenges of taking in displaced students, school leaders also had to meet these students’ emotional needs.

“It’s very different” is how Jameall Gatlin, who was among those evacuated from the Superdome, described his first day at Briarmeadow Charter School in Houston, according to an Associated Press report. Left unsaid: The anguish of the shy eight-year-old as he stuck his hands in the pockets of his newly donated shorts.

As the enormity of the storm’s fallout became clearer, schools and colleges in states as far away as Washington and Ohio also pledged to enroll displaced students.

Dozens of colleges around the country said they would help displaced students find spaces, and they have extended deadlines, waived application fees, and promised to streamline paperwork. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) also pledged to relax student-loan guidelines to help transferring students.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling started an online message board for updates on college conditions and options for displaced students. People can ask questions or post the status of a school on the boards. The organization’s web site urges colleges and universities to be flexible with their admissions process for students from hurricane-affected areas.

Virtual schooling options

To ease the burden on overcrowded institutions, some online schooling programs have stepped up and offered their services, too.

Park University, which has 24,000 students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate degree programs at 42 campuses and online, is offering its online classes to displaced students. The school said it would waive fall 2005 tuition fees for online undergraduate and graduate classes to students currently enrolled at accredited colleges and universities in the affected areas. Students may enroll for up to six credit hours based on course availability. The university has two fall terms, the second of which begins on Oct. 24, and students still have time to enroll.

As of press time, no displaced students had enrolled, but a Park University spokeswoman said the school had people on staff ready to assist any interested students. Registration will still be open in the coming weeks, giving students time to adjust and recover from the hurricane, she said.

The University of New Orleans said it hoped to offer internet classes in October and was aiming to get its satellite campuses ready as soon as possible.

In addition, the National Council of Education Providers–which represents the nation’s for-profit school management companies–has asked ED for permission to enroll students who are staying at emergency shelters in the web-based courses offered by its members.

The council has asked the department to establish a “national virtual charter school” that would “serve evacuees wherever they are.”

“Once students have access to computers and connectivity–borrowed, donated, or shared–companies are standing by to waive state restrictions and log these students on,” the council’s web site said. The group wants federal officials to waive enrollment caps that apply to charter schools during this time of crisis.

“Children are being dislocated, literally,” said Ray Simon, deputy education secretary at ED. “They’re homeless. They’re traveling hundreds of miles to find temporary homes, which means they will also have to travel several hundred miles to find schools.”

Simon had no comment on the council’s proposal before press time.

The storm’s human toll

Eric Luce, an associate professor of curriculum, instruction, and special education at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Long Beach campus, counts himself lucky that he was out of harm’s way when the storm hit. Still, Luce isn’t sure what he’ll find when he returns home.

“It seems very likely that our house is destroyed,” he told eSchool News. “[A friend] told me that about half of my street is gone.” Luce, who was staying with relatives in Pennsylvania at press time, offered to keep a web log of his experience for eSchool News Online.

The University of Southern Mississippi’s Hattiesburg campus was scheduled to reopen Sept. 12, Luce said, and faculty, staff, and administrators who were able to report to the campus were asked to do so to help prepare for the fall semester. Administrative offices at USM’s Long Beach campus on the Gulf Coast have temporarily relocated, and classes were tentatively scheduled to begin Oct. 3.

“I may be assigned to work in Hattiesburg to teach and plan for the reopening of the Coast campuses,” Luce said, adding that many other details–such as housing–would have to be taken into consideration.

Luce said he received an eMail message from his department chair that addressed some of the issues he is dealing with, but he still had several questions as of press time.

Luce was only recently able to access his USM eMail account and saw an eMail notice about staff meetings following the hurricane. He said he would send a response notifying others of his stay in Pennsylvania. “I’m ready to work,” he said, noting that he would return to USM when emergency officials allow evacuees to return to the area.

USM is working to ensure that employees receive payroll checks and that students receive refund checks. Gulf Coast campus employees who do not have direct deposit for their paychecks were able to pick up their most recent check on Sept. 9, according to a USM press release. The press release also said that the USM Credit Union confirmed that all checks have been deposited and posted to accounts for employees and students with direct deposit.

Luce has kept in touch with students, family, and friends through his personal eMail account, his university eMail, and also through the Ed-Tech Insider blogs at eSN Online, where he has kept an online journal of his hurricane experiences.

“It is projected that our university will reopen on Sept. 12, but it is still hurricane season, and Katrina’s footprints still scar the landscape,” he wrote on Sept. 5. “It will be a day-to-day thing for many as we reconstruct and reconfigure our lives.”

Transferring records

Once their students have a place to attend school this fall, education officials in the affected states face another enormous task: Transferring students’ records to the appropriate institution and accounting for their whereabouts.

The LDE is making student records available to all of its school systems, so parishes taking in students have a way to track these students for funding purposes. The agency also is working to establish direct points of contact for every superintendent in the state, so that one person within the agency can take their calls.

In his letter to school leaders, Picard said Louisiana is sending all operating school districts a database containing Student Information System (SIS) and Student Transcript System (STS) data. These databases include basic statistics such as demographics, enrollment, high school transcripts, and class schedule information for public school students in the affected parishes of Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, and St. Tammany.

Local parishes in Louisiana will be responsible for tracking students’ whereabouts, but the LDE is still working out that process, said an agency spokeswoman.

Alabama’s White said an online data-collection program used by that state’s public schools will be used to track displaced students. In 2003, Alabama became one of the first states in the nation to roll out an online SIS in all of its public schools statewide, and that system–from the Mobile-based company Software Technology Inc. (STI)–will be used in the effort.

“We’ll input all their data and code those [displaced] students with a special priority,” White said.

A spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education said her agency is taking every step to ensure that student records are maintained. If a school’s records were lost or destroyed, she said, the department will work with school leaders to create new records using all available information, including data from the state’s SIS.

Regulatory flexibility

Those schools devastated by Katrina and the schools scrambling to help them will receive unprecedented leeway in complying with the nation’s top education law.

Federal education leaders said Aug. 31 that they will consider broad requests for relief from states in the overwhelmed Gulf Coast–meaning schools could get significantly more time to raise yearly test scores or to ensure that all their teachers are highly qualified.

“You can be assured that the red tape will be put in the drawer,” said ED’s Simon after taking part in a White House meeting about the hurricane response.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced students are expected to be attending school in a different district, if not a different state, this fall. Education officials also pledged to relax rules on college aid, including timelines for students to pay their loans.

ED told school chiefs in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas that they could expect fast, streamlined relief. Education leaders in these states were still figuring out what kind of help they would seek at press time, but they are expected to jump on the department’s offer to reconsider waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Louisiana state education officials started meeting Aug. 31 to discuss the long-term effects to public schools in the devastated areas. There is a process by which the state Legislature can waive the required number of days in a school year when a natural disaster forces schools to close, said Meg Casper, an LDE spokeswoman.

Joseph B. Morton, Alabama’s state superintendent, also has waived the usual requirements for students transferring into state public schools, and Mississippi is expected to do the same.

Communication challenges and infrastructural repairs

Adding to the chaos and confusion that school officials and stakeholders faced in Katrina’s wake was the destruction of telephone systems and other technology infrastructures that enabled communication.

Downed telephone lines made communication difficult, if not impossible, for school and law-enforcement officials.

The storm knocked out the telephone system on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. New Orleans police officers took turns talking on a single radio channel with their walkie talkies. The Mississippi National Guard sent runners back and forth among commanders with information, while officials in other areas relied on text messaging and other satellite-based communications.

Alabama’s White added that limited working phones and electricity have hampered landline communication in Mobile, and that school system public information officers and superintendents were dealing directly with the media to spread the word on current conditions.

The LDE Call Center had taken calls from parents, teachers, and other school employees and answered approximately 4,000 calls as of Sept. 4. The agency’s web site has been updated daily with the latest information from school systems hit hardest by the hurricane.

The New Orleans Public School System’s offices were inaccessible as of press time. Officials were unable to conduct payroll operations but were searching for ways to process payments to employees as soon as possible. Health insurance benefits remained intact. A toll-free hotline was set up for employees to get information, and employees were encouraged to leave their contact information.

Mississippi school employees can register their basic personal and contact information online or over the telephone. The state has an interactive survey online where school employees can enter information and make note of any concerns or immediate needs they have. Once employees are registered, the state’s education department will coordinate communication efforts between displaced employees and their school districts.

Many technology companies and service providers also have stepped up to help improve communication in the affected areas. Qwest Communications was sending 2,000 calling cards so affected residents can call friends and family. The company also donated $230,000 to the Red Cross to train volunteers.

Comcast has donated $10 million in advertising time to public service announcements. The Intel Foundation donated $1 million to the Red Cross and is matching employee donations.

Restoring phone service wasn’t merely a matter of waiting for the flood waters to recede and restoring power. While many cables might be salvageable, the electronics that pass the signals across those lines will need to be replaced.

“It’s essentially analogous to putting a PC in your bathtub,” said Jim Gerace, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless.

School district leaders were still assessing the damage to their schools as of press time, and the technology infrastructure in many schools–such as computers, servers, and telephone and Internet Protocol network switches–likely will have to be replaced.

School officials in the affected areas had no early estimates of what it would cost to replace their technology systems–though it could easily reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

One program that might be called on to help in the rebuilding process is the eRate, the federal program that provides up to $2.25 billion in telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries each year.

When asked whether eRate deadlines might be extended or waived, or special funding set aside, for schools impacted by the hurricane, Tanya Sullivan, senior director of education and communications for the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co., which administers the eRate, referred all questions to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which makes the program’s rules.

An FCC spokesman said his agency has fielded questions regarding eRate compliance in the affected areas. He said the commission is trying to act expeditiously on every request it receives and will do everything in its power to work with those schools impacted by the storm.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

See these related links:

Louisiana Department of Education

Mississippi Department of Education

Alabama Department of Education

Texas Education Agency

U.S. Department of Education

National Association for College Admission Counseling

Park University

National Council of Education Providers

Eric Luce’s blog