- July 15, 2020
Under ordinary circumstances, Sarasota County Schools’ motto is “Working as one for the success of all.” For the foreseeable future, it has a new one: “When in doubt, cut it out.”
That’s the phrase Jody Dumas, the school system’s chief operating officer, on Tuesday applied to the district’s strategy as it hurriedly — with student safety as the guiding principle — readies schools for reopening in the aftermath Hurricane Ian. During a briefing on Tuesday, the school system laid out its schedule for bringing students back to the classroom.
The reopening announcement came just hours after the Sarasota School Board in an emergency meeting granted Superintendent Brennan Asplen emergency powers to move forward with repair and recovery of school facilities and programs following the effects of the hurricane.
The emergency order, enabled by Gov. Ron DeSantis' declaration of an emergency for Sarasota and other counties affected by Ian, would run for 45 days, unless an extension was approved by the school board, and would require expenditures of $100,000 or more be reported to the board. Asplen said the district intends to open all schools north of Taylor Ranch on Monday, Oct. 10, followed one week later by the remainder of the schools in south county.
“Currently, we have two shelters that are still open at Venice High School for general population and Tatum Elementary for our medically dependent guests,” Asplen said. “Those are planned to be closed on Friday at the end of the day so we can begin cleaning those to help us reopen as soon as possible. North county and south county have different amounts of wind and water. However, all of our schools had water intrusion and damage.”
Following the storm, damage assessment teams fanned out to all schools in the district, electronically cataloging all damages in the district’s 8.5 million square feet of space. Each incident of damage, Dumas said, was logged via GPS right down to the square foot. That targeted assessment provides restoration teams an efficient inventory to locate repairs.
All north county schools have power and utilities. Those that were without power and air conditioning long enough to support mold growth will be subject to the “when in doubt, cut it out” approach.
“When you have water intrusion and no A/C for a few days, that becomes a concern,” Dumas said. “We're cutting out drywall, and where we're not sure, it’s all coming out. The safety and security of our students is absolutely of the utmost importance. If we're not sure, it gets cut out, gets discarded and new goes in. We may not be able to get the same color carpet that was in that classroom. It may be patchwork to open, but we'll go back and correct that as we get time over the summer.”
As of Tuesday morning, only four campuses, all in south county, remained without power.
The safe return of students, though, begins outside of the classroom.
“Many traffic signals throughout the county are not working, making unsafe conditions for busing,” Asplen said. “We anticipate these will be addressed by week's end. We have around 300 bus routes. We’re going to run those as a dry run to be sure that all of our bus stops are open and ready to go.
“Many of our employees were also affected by the storm and we're currently working through who can return based on their needs and making sure that we have support in place for them.”
When athletics will resume is also uncertain. Dumas said a meeting with athletics directors will be held this week, and any determinations will be included in another update later in the week.
When schools do open, in many instances the student experience will be different than before the hurricane. Damage to cafeterias may require students to have lunch in classrooms, or in the case of a damaged kitchen, lunches will be brought in from outside. Some classrooms may also not be available when schools reopen.
With the eye wall of a near Category 5 hurricane making landfall in south county, Asplen said damage to schools could have been considerably worse.
“I thought that there would be much more damage than there was, so we are able to repair and clean and move back within a couple of weeks of a hurricane at that magnitude,” Asplen said. “I think that's amazing, and it's also a testament to our maintenance crew and our facilities crew. I really thought we would have a couple of schools that just had a slab left when you're looking at those those winds, so we're incredibly happy about about that.”