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A month after Hurricane Ida, thousands of kids have yet to return to school

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, we're going to be reporting on the toll Hurricane Ida has taken on Louisiana. The deadly storm slammed into the southern part of the state in August with 150 mph winds. Hundreds of public schools closed due to the widespread damage, flooding and power outages. And while most have since reopened, the state estimates that nearly 50,000 students still have not returned to the classroom. Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO in New Orleans is following the situation and joins us now.

Hey, Aubri.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Where do things stand right now when it comes to recovery from Hurricane Ida and schools?

JUHASZ: Yeah, well, more than 300,000 students were initially affected by the storm. And while some missed just a few days or weeks, 10% of kids statewide ended up missing at least a month of school. And some of those students still aren't back in the classroom. As you said before, nearly 50,000 kids are still out of school, and some of them could end up missing two months or more. These students live in the hardest hit parishes, where in some cases, school buildings are just completely unusable. Some didn't get electricity until recently, and in large parts of the region, the internet is basically still out. So educators have had to get really creative. I spoke with Susan Adams, who teaches English. Her high school was wrecked by Ida. So last week, they started bussing students an hour away to another campus that they're sharing with a second high school. Adams says as a result, the school days for students are condensed and pretty unpredictable.

SUSAN ADAMS: I just don't want to waste their time. God, I just don't want to waste their time - or my time with them, because it's precious and little.

SHAPIRO: Why is the recovery so slow and taking so long?

JUHASZ: Yeah, I mean, even in an area that's really used to hurricanes like Louisiana, a fair number of schools just don't have backup plans when damage is this widespread. So while some teachers like Adams are able to share classrooms with other teachers, other schools don't have setups like that. You know, all they can do is wait for their school buildings to be repaired. And these buildings - you know, some of them are in really bad shape. Contractors are moving fast, but they have to tear down sheetrock, you know, completely gut buildings, fix electrical systems, make sure there's no mold. There's just a lot to do. And all of that takes a lot of money that school districts just don't have. Jarod Martin - he's the superintendent of Lafourche Parish Public Schools. And last week, he said, you know, there's more than $100 million in damage in his district alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAROD MARTIN: You've got to spend the money to get reimbursed. But if you don't have it on the front end, I'm not a creative accountant. I don't know how you spend money you don't have.

SHAPIRO: So what's the solution? What can school districts do?

JUHASZ: Yeah, I mean, the districts themselves are pretty stuck. They're doing all they can. Look, some of them still have outstanding federal payment requests from Hurricane Katrina, and that was 16 years ago. So it's pretty clear that the change needs to happen at the state or the federal level. The clip of tape we just heard from Superintendent Martin actually comes from a state legislative hearing last week where he and a couple of other superintendents basically were pleading for help. You know, they said, something has to change. We can't keep doing this every time a hurricane comes, because Louisiana's really been battered the last couple of years. Five tropical systems blew across the state last year. This year has been rough, too. Hurricane Laura hit a different part of the coast last year near Lake Charles. And that school district - they recently had to just stop all of their construction because they ran out of money. The solution that people want is for the federal government to dole out money faster and more freely and not require schools to front all of the cash themselves.

SHAPIRO: Louisiana, as you know, has also been battered by the pandemic. The coronavirus hit that state especially hard. How does that layer on top of this recovery effort?

JUHASZ: Yeah, I mean, it's just disaster after disaster. And obviously, we have disasters popping up all across the country - fires in the West, flooding in the Northeast, hurricanes here. I spoke with Cassandra Davis, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, about this. She studies the impact disasters have on schools, and she focuses on how they affect, you know, different districts and different groups of people differently. And particularly, she looks at students and teachers in low-income communities. She says it's really important to be aware of these differences.

CASSANDRA DAVIS: And if we don't - same thing with COVID. If we don't get a sense of those differences or acknowledge that differences are about to come, they're about to magnify, how can we support these differences? They're just going to continue to widen.

JUHASZ: So, Ari, while most students in south Louisiana are now back in school after Hurricane Ida, there are still many, many challenges ahead. Most people here still need some sort of ongoing support for the foreseeable future, and getting back to normal doesn't take days or weeks. It can take years.

SHAPIRO: That's Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO in New Orleans.

Thanks a lot.

JUHASZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.