Texas schools still tallying storm costs, and some won't reopen soon

Cots and bags with items at Reilly Elementary School in North Austin. The school was turned into a warming shelter during the recent winter storm. Feb. 18, 2021. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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When the winter storm hit Texas last week, the overhead sprinklers across the hall from Valerie Malone’s first-grade classroom broke and flooded rooms on both sides.

Malone’s elementary school is one of seven in the Arlington Independent School District that couldn’t open for in-person learning this week, joining dozens across the state. The fast-plummeting frigid temperatures and power outages froze sprinkler systems, destroyed flooring and disrupted crucial services to school buildings, temporarily preventing some from providing students with food and shelter.

School leaders are still surveying the damage and calculating their losses. Some schools might not be able to reopen for in-person learning at all this school year, adding instability to an academic year already complicated by a pandemic.

“I don’t know if we will be allowed back in next week,” Malone said. “I’m thinking that everything that was on my floor such as my bookshelf, some of my books, some of the furniture I bought will have to be replaced.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told lawmakers earlier this week that damage to school facilities is likely “extensive” and that he will have more data in the next month. School districts must look to insurance and federal emergency relief agencies to fund repairs and losses, with the state as a final resort.

Those costs could be significant, especially as districts are already paying extra to educate students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Austin ISD estimated its schools suffered $15 million worth of damage from the storm, according to a KUT report.

Some Killeen ISD schools have severe plumbing issues, including standing water in classrooms and bathrooms, leaks in roofs, and waterlogged light fixtures, according to a district-provided repair log. In Audie Murphy Middle School, a frozen boiler pipe caused a major leak in the athletics area, meaning the gym floor will need to be repaired. Killeen ISD, like some other districts, does not yet know the cost of repairs.

“All of that takes a long period of time to process. And you’re rarely made whole. Usually it’s 75% may get reimbursed,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

More importantly, some students learning in person may not be able to go back to their normal classrooms for weeks, if at all. This week, some districts canceled classes for a couple of days, giving families time to get their own homes fixed or find food on sparse grocery store shelves. School leaders know the instability could make a challenging situation worse.

“The snow is falling and ice is coming down and water is out. It’s just insult to injury in what’s already been an incredibly difficult year,” said Anita Foster, spokesperson for Arlington ISD. “We do have concerns about this natural disaster on top of a health emergency.”

Denton ISD’s Harpool Middle School, where 90% of students were learning in person, will not reopen this school year due to storm damage. District officials sent a message to parents this week announcing that students and faculty in each grade will be temporarily relocated to a separate campus after spring break next month.

“Please know our principals and teachers are working diligently to make accommodations in the best interest of all students, while navigating a very tough situation,” district administrator Susannah O’Bara wrote in the message.

District leaders asked teachers to list all the school-owned items they lost in the storm, so they can help them replace crucial supplies, said Superintendent Jamie Wilson. Denton County is included in the federal disaster declaration, meaning some teachers may also be able to submit personal reimbursement requests to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Wilson said.

“Frankly, one of the areas that a lot of our employees live in had upward of 40 hours of [power] outage. If you had that many hours, you’re going to have some fallout from that,” he said.

Malone, the teacher in Arlington ISD, lost power for more than three days and stayed with her parents-in-law. She was lucky that her pipes didn’t burst and her home suffered minimal damage. When she walked into her classroom Thursday for the first time since the storm, she found it had not fared as well. Malone created an Amazon Wishlist asking for classroom supplies, like an air purifier, throw pillows and a multicolored rug, that were damaged.

She has been reaching out to her students and their families individually to ask whether they have heat or need resources. Normally, about 75% of her students learn in person and now all are learning virtually until it’s safe to head back. “It’s a very overwhelming time for everyone,” Malone said.

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