Public schools in Onslow County will begin reopening for students next week after remaining closed for more than a month as crews cleaned and repaired the storm-damaged buildings.
“I thought we might have had to wait a little longer," said Pam Thomas, the county’s school board chairwoman.
District leaders plan to reopen the county’s 38 schools in three phases over the next few weeks. More than half of the district’s roughly 26,000 students will return to their classrooms next Wednesday, while the remaining students must wait until the beginning of November.
"This way, staggering it, we’re not going to have to share schools," Thomas said.
Hurricane Florence’s strong winds and heavy rainfall damaged every school in the district. The hardest-hit schools received major water damage after the hurricane’s winds tore off pieces and entire sections of roofing material, allowing several inches of rain into the classrooms and corridors below.
“I’ve been here 45 years and I’ve never seen such mass destruction in our county, as well as our school system. It took a big hit,” said Earl Taylor, school board member and former high school band director.
For the last several weeks, crews have worked to dry out the schools, make repairs, clean them and test the air for mold, mildew and bacterial growth.
District leaders have struggled to find the funds to complete the preliminary work on the schools, which they estimated would cost between $500,000 and $700,000 a day.
After district leaders received a letter guaranteeing it more than $10 million from the state’s education lottery fund to repair the schools, they decided to schedule reopen dates, said Pam Thomas, school board chairwoman. County commissioners agreed last week to lend the district $5 million to pay for about a week’s worth of repairs to the schools.
“That will help us move these other buildings, so they can open. It doesn’t mean that every classroom will be ready to be moved into,” Thomas said.
The district estimates it would cost about $125 million to restore the schools to pre-Florence condition. District leaders don’t know yet how much they will receive from the state's school property insurance fund, Thomas said. “They’re still out assessing damages,” she said.
She says she expects financial limitations to prolong completing major repairs to several facilities, particularly gymnasiums where water-damaged wooden floors have buckled and warped. “They’re instructional areas, too. It’s going to cost a lot of money to get those back up and running,” Thomas said. “And we need to do it.”