ORLANDO, Fla. - Since students in the Florida Panhandle county hardest hit by Hurricane Michael returned to classrooms in early November, they've dealt with power outages, sporadic internet, missing friends, larger classes and shared buildings.
Students displaced from heavily damaged Bay County schools have moved into less damaged schools, where one school holds classes in the morning and the other school holds classes in the afternoon.
Teachers have struggled with how much homework to give students when they didn't have internet at home.
The district dropped its dress code because some students and staff lost their clothes to the Oct. 10 hurricane and wore donated clothing.
"You can see the staff, they're taking it one day at a time. They say they're OK, but I don't know if they're OK. They're putting on a smile and a brave face for the kids," said JoBeth Davis, a special education teacher at Deer Point Elementary School in Panama City.
As recently as Monday, schools were still dealing with sporadic power outages. Davis' school had some right before Thanksgiving.
"At first we thought everything was going to be OK — the kids are very resilient — but they started crying. They thought another storm was coming," Davis said. "We tried to keep them calm and told them these things happen."
For Gavin Polenz, the hardest part of returning to school has been the piles of debris. The fourth-grader uses a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy and the debris on Panama City streets made getting to his new bus stop two blocks away difficult. His parents, Amber and Josh, worry the debris made it hard for cars to see him.
Gavin is at a new school, but he has the same teacher and many former classmates, which he found reassuring. During the first week of classes in early November, they made bracelets, colored and talked about the hurricane, not the usual class activities.
"We were trying to get used to being at school," Gavin said in a telephone interview. "It felt good to talk about it."
District officials are still trying to get a handle on how many students they have. Two district administrators are devoting their time to tracking down students to figure out if they've moved away.
A little more than 29,000 students across the district were enrolled in schools on the last day of classes before Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle with winds topping out at 155 miles (250 kilometers) per hour. Enrollment had dropped by more than 2,600 students, almost 9 percent, districtwide by the Friday before Thanksgiving.
District officials said that drop could increase as requests for transfers to other school districts catch up with the number of students who have left. Some individual schools have had drops in enrollment as high as a fifth of the student body.
"I still have kids that we can't find, and even their friends can't find them. When teenagers can't find each other on social media, that gets serious," said Alexis Underwood, who teaches seventh-grade language arts at Mowat Middle School in Lynn Haven. "I'm sure if they were in town, we would have found them."
The school district has ordered 200 modular buildings with the goal of having students back at all but three of the 50 or so campuses sometime after the new year, using a combination of the prefabricated buildings and existing structures.
Generous donors from all over the country have purchased and shipped new supplies for the teachers and students.
The lack of available housing, closed stores and lingering debris piles were factors in a number of teachers leaving and likely will make recruiting new teachers to the district difficult, said Underwood, who is the president of the teachers association.
"Most teachers are going to walk over coals to get back to their students because as a profession, that's what we do," Underwood said. "So it has to be pretty bad for a teacher to leave."
Teachers and staff members with damaged homes are still dealing with insurance adjusters, roofers and contractors but can't take calls while they're in classrooms. Many teachers who lost their homes are living with friends or family members, or driving two hours to work from where they found new housing.
"Many of our teachers were and are still homeless," said Sharon Michalik, Bay District School's director of communications. "It's a challenge for them to put their needs on hold to be with their students. We think that's superhuman of them."
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