Since the day Hurricane Florence began battering the North Carolina coast, WUNC’s education reporters have been following staff and families in New Hanover County Schools as they first weathered the storm, and now work to put their classrooms and schools back together.
As second grade teacher Jenna Parker greets her students this morning, it’s almost like they’ve been on winter break. She gives them hugs and reminds them of their morning routine.
“Remember where lunchboxes go, Annabelle?” she asks one student. “It’s been a while, I know!”
Then, a dark-haired little boy named Gabe walks in.
“Hey, are you good?” Parker says. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Sorry that your house got destroyed,” the student says.
“Thank you, Gabe,” Parker says. “It’s okay though. They’re going to fix it.”
We’re quickly reminded: the break from school wasn’t really a break. Whether they were in town or evacuated a few states away, these 7- and 8-olds watched Hurricane Florence wallop their community, and leave much of it flooded and wind-torn.
Parker is all too aware of that as she waits to see who is and isn’t coming to class today.
“You can't just jump right back into a math lesson when you come back from an experience like this,” she says. “We don't know what all the kids have gone through and so we need to put their wellbeing first, come back together, support each other. Let them voice their feelings, let them have those conversations with us, share those fears, or those things that have upset them.”
Some of Parker’s 21 students do so as they walk into class.
“My mom told me there were little leaks in the school and they take four weeks to repair,” says one little girl.
“There were some leaks in our school, but not in our classroom,” Parker says. “Our classroom is perfect.”
Others open up after hearing about their teacher’s house. It was badly damaged by wind and rain, and will likely take a half year to rebuild. Parker’s second graders are curious and aware, but still learning.
“I still am confused, how your house is still underwater,” says one student, as the class gathers together.
“My house is not underwater," Parker says. “But some of the ceilings in the house got really wet, so some fell down. And some furniture got really wet. So we had to hire a company to go in and clean it all out.”
The discussion leads some of the second graders to chime in about their own experiences.
“We only got three shingles off the roof, and now we’re getting a whole new roof,” one student says.
“You’re very lucky that there wasn’t a lot of damage, huh?” Parker says. “There’s going to be a lot of people getting new roofs. When you guys have been driving around, have you seen a lot of blue and green tarps?”
After talking together, Parker sends her students back to their seats to write about how they’re feeling and why.
A little girl in pink remains cross-legged on the class rug. She’s teary-eyed. Her teacher puts an arm around her and pulls her close. Turns out, her mom’s house had similar damage to Parker’s.
“Her and I were able to connect and talk about it,” Parker says. “‘It is sad. Ms. Parker cried about it too. You don’t want to see the things you owned damaged,’ I said. ‘But you and mom are okay, Ms. Parker’s okay,’ and she loves my daughter, so I said, ‘Laniey’s okay -- and the rest can be rebuilt. They can put new walls. They can put new carpet.’”
“‘So it’s okay to feel sad,’” Parker tells the little girl. “‘But we’re happy that we’re good.’”