If T.S. Eliot were still alive, he would get a lot of argument from people living in South Louisiana about his poetic declaration that “April is the cruelest month.” There are two cruel months in these parts: August and September.
These months are getting a reputation for five things: hurricanes, evacuations, traffic snarls, power outages and general chaos.
August and September are also the months that thousands of school children and college students return to the classroom after their summer breaks. Needless to say, hurricanes, evacuations, traffic snarls, power outages and general chaos are not conducive to book learning.
Two times in the past three years, the return to school in the New Orleans area has been cut short by major hurricanes. Back-to-back hurricanes – Katrina and Rita – in 2005, ran students out of the classroom in several parts of the state for weeks or months. Gustav’s Labor Day landing sent thousands scurrying for safety, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to the Texas border. It closed New Orleans area schools for five days. Schools located in areas closer to the eye of the storm suffered even more.
Gustav had barely moved on, when Ike struck and one or more school days were lost. Even though the storm landed hundreds of miles away, the storm surge pushed water into lower St. Tammany Parish from Madisonville to the state line east of Slidell and flooded many communities outside the levee system. It also hammered Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes and damaged the sewerage system in the Lafitte area of Jefferson Parish.
Everyone around New Orleans sighed with relief that the disruption was mild in comparison to Katrina. Still, the damage to fragile psyches, especially those of small children, was sometimes severe. Memories of Katrina are never far away.
Nancy Hernandez, principal at St. Andrew the Apostle School in Algiers, told the Times-Picayune that some of her students left school upset. One first-grader broke down crying and said, “I don’t want to move.”
In the days before Gustav hit, educational staff had to prepare. On college campuses students were bused to evacuation sites at other colleges. Administrators arranged offsite facilities in preparation for long-term displacement. The storm proved to be less devastating than predicted, but downed power lines between Baton Rouge and New Orleans kept the region in the dark for days. The power outages delayed school openings and prolonged mental trauma and physical exhaustion.
“When you have to manage the evacuation of a campus, with all of the logistics that go along with it – arranging group transportation, meals, homes for students to relocate to and Blackboard instruction, and maintaining those human connections – the psychological toll cannot be imagined,” said Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard University, in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education.
When schools opened again, teachers had to find ways to make up for lost classroom time. Lesson plans had to be retooled. Administrators had to decide how to make up for six or more lost days. State law says that elementary and secondary students must receive 63,720 instructional minutes during the academic year. Make up schedules must be filed with state officials, which mean even more paperwork for staff.
If all that isn’t bad enough, weather professionals say – in their own coded way – that all this trauma and wasted time could happen again next year and the year after that.
According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the number of hurricanes has increased since 1995 and they are getting more intense. In 2005, an unprecedented 28 storms hit the U.S., and two of the season’s four major hurricanes battered Louisiana. The Pew Center also says, “It is likely (better than 2 to 1 odds) that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with large peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical (sea surface temperatures).”
The bottom line is, it may be time to accept the fact that the cruel months of August and September are not for schooling. Just as educators of yesteryear scheduled school years around harvests so farming parents would send their children to school, it may be time for state officials to face reality and delay school openings until after the peak weeks of hurricane season. A late September through late June academic year would work just as effectively as the present late August to late May schedule.
With the exception of Wilma, which hit Cozumel, Mexico on Oct. 21, 2005, most of the big storms have formed between mid-August and late September, with the last week of August and the first two weeks of September particularly active. Andrew (1992), Katrina (2005) and Dean (2007) all struck the last week of August. Gustav, Ike (both 2008) and Ivan (2004) and Felix (2007) hit land the first and second weeks of September. Rita ravaged the border between Louisiana and Texas on Sept. 24, 2005.
Getting through one storm event in the beginning of the school year is stressful enough, but in recent years the major hurricanes have been coming in pairs, doubling the trouble.
In 2005, Rita followed Katrina by a few weeks; in 2007, Dean and Felix hit Mexico and Central America in a two-week period. This season, Ike trailed Gustav and beat up the Gulf Coast, while it was still trying to recover from the devastation of 2005.
“If that trend continues,” says Anthony Recasner, president of Middle School Advocates, “we will be forced into a conversation about when to start the school year. When there is a constant state of ambiguity, something has to be done differently.”