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Frustration Grows As N.C. Schools Are Slow To Reopen After Florence


People who live in North Carolina are feeling a little relief. The impact of Tropical Storm Michael was not as significant as many had feared. Parts of the state still haven't recovered from Hurricane Florence, which hit a month ago. In Robeson County, the schools are still closed, and district officials haven't yet said when they'll reopen. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Robeson County is a big, rural district on a floodplain. There are 41 schools here. Each one suffered at least some water damage. And some school buildings won't be usable for weeks to come. Earney Hammonds is the district's maintenance director.

EARNEY HAMMONDS: This is actually the computer services in here. This is where all the computer techs did all the repairs and maintained the computer equipment throughout the county.

GJELTEN: It's all stripped out now.

HAMMONDS: Yes, sir. The Sheetrock is being cut up around 4 foot. All of the studs are exposed.

GJELTEN: All the schools in Robeson County have been closed since September 11. And health officials here have not yet given a green light to the administration to reopen them. The county is among the poorest school districts in the state. The superintendent, Shanita Wooten, is a Robeson County native. She's the youngest superintendent here ever and the first African-American woman to lead the district. She wants her schools to make a difference in her students' lives, and she's heartbroken that the students are going on five weeks now outside of school.

SHANITA WOOTEN: We've got 23,000 children who - we really don't know where they are right now. So that worries me every single day - if their needs are being met, if they're safe. Are they in damaged homes? Do they have food? Are they getting hugs? I worry because we can't physically reach them.

GJELTEN: One of those students is little Mary Gray. She should be in kindergarten, but today she is with her grandmother, Mary Hunt, who has taken her to the warehouse where Hunt helps to distribute relief supplies. Not a great situation, but there aren't many options.

MARY HUNT: It's been trying. Yes, trying because she's active. Child care is $110 a week.

GJELTEN: When do you think they will be back in school?

HUNT: Well, I asked that question, and they said they had no idea.

GJELTEN: Superintendent Wooten knows parents and grandparents are upset but feels there's little she can do.

WOOTEN: The frustration is growing because right now, on the outside, the schools look OK. The water went away. But it's the inside conditions that's truly holding us up.

GJELTEN: When the power went out in the schools, so did the air conditioning. It was very hot and very humid - perfect breeding conditions for mold, which now has to be removed. This is another of the consequences of a disastrous hurricane on top of the property damage, people displaced from their homes, a life's investment gone - children who desperately need a solid education now falling behind.

WOOTEN: We were already struggling with the academics. When people talk about the summer slide, when kids fall back when they're not in school, we're making that gap even wider right now. Being out of school for over 20 days - they've been out longer than they've been in.

GJELTEN: Classes started here on August 27, only to stop after just 12 days. Superintendent Wooten has her speech ready for the first day back. This is going to be our second first day of school for this year, she will say. It's not often you get a do-over. Let's make the best of it. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Robeson County, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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