Like most South Floridians, school district officials here were closely watching Hurricane Dorian as it approached the state.
In anticipation of the storm’s potential impacts, public schools were closed throughout the region on Tuesday, and, in Palm Beach County, on Wednesday, as well.
There are a variety of factors that local leaders consider before closing schools and reopening them.
WLRN education reporter Jessica Bakeman discussed that decision making process with Broward County superintendent Robert Runcie. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation:
WLRN: What do you watch as a hurricane is approaching?
RUNCIE: We will not put our buses on the road when there are wind speeds in excess of 39 miles per hour. That's not safe for our buses. It's not safe for our students. And that’s regardless of whether there’s a storm or not. That’s a general benchmark for us.
The other piece is, after a storm passes through, we wait for what’s called an "all clear" from the county. And then we dispatch our maintenance crews to go out and do what we call a damage assessment. And then they send that damage assessment report back to us, and then we look at it and we determine how much time it may take to get our schools back in shape in order to open.
And then the third component is shelters. When we open shelters, we have to wait for the county to make a designation of when those shelters are going to be closed. Then we have to evacuate the shelters, and then we have to clean them and get them ready for schools to be open.
And you did open shelters in Broward County as a result of Hurricane Dorian?
Yes, we did. … In fact, we had crews working till 2 or 3 in the morning to clean one of those shelters and get the school prepared to receive students and staff [Wednesday].
So they were leaving just a few hours before students were arriving.
A lot of folks may not realize the work that our crews are doing behind the scenes.
I would assume that you have employees who live in Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County?
Yes, we do. We have about 5 percent of our employees live in Miami-Dade and another 4 percent live in Palm Beach. So somewhere around 9 percent of our employees live in other counties. That's roughly somewhere between 2,800 and 3,000 people.
Right. So, I was wondering if that was a part of the calculation. In this case, obviously, Palm Beach was more at risk. So, if the conditions in Palm Beach were unsafe and people were needing to relocate to shelters — or if employees here have kids who go to school elsewhere and those schools are closed — is that something you would consider in terms of whether to close schools here in Broward?
It hasn't been a big part of our decision-making factors. In Miami-Dade, it's probably a bigger concern, because over 20 percent of their workforce lives in Broward County.
And many families depend on school for meals, and food insecurity is worse before and after a natural disaster. Is that something that you think about? Students may not have access to food if they're not in school.
Oh, absolutely. … About 65 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced meals. … During Irma, we went through an extensive process where our food services department — we opened a number of schools that were actually serving meals in the community.
If there's the potential for storm surge in the coastal communities, but in Northwest Broward, they only get a little rainstorm, does that mean that school has to close everywhere in the county? I mean, obviously, it's a big county.
Yeah. If we have major concerns coming from a storm that would create conditions like storm surge and evacuations, we would more than likely end up closing the district. It's just not viable for us to run the school system where some percentage of our schools are unable to function.