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State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley looks at damage to West Jefferson High School earlier this month.

For the third time in 18 months Louisiana public school students are engulfed in turmoil, this time because of Hurricane Ida.

Roughly 300,000 students were forced out of their classrooms because of the storm, which is more than 40% of enrollment statewide.

Nearly 105,000 students remained out of school last week, nearly one month after the Category 4 hurricane landed near Port Fourchon.

Educators said the Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson and St. Charles school districts suffered the heaviest damage, and in some cases schools are expected to remain closed until late October.

“I’ve worked for Lafourche Parish for 40 years and been through several hurricanes and never have I experienced or seen such damage and devastation to our schools and communities,” said Sandy Holloway, a Thibodaux educator and president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The storm is just the latest shock to public schools in a state always trying to get off the bottom of national lists for academic achievement.

Classrooms abruptly closed in March, 2020 in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

The tumultuous 2020-21 school year was marked by stops and starts, in-person and virtual learning and a wholesale drop in key state scores that measure what students know about math, English, science and social studies.

There was some optimism when classes began in early August.

"We felt like we had strong momentum going into this year, especially with the excitement of having kids back in class," state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said.

But Hurricane Ida turned 25 parishes into federal disaster areas, with lower Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes leading the way.

A total of 159 schools were damaged in those four districts alone.

Nearly one third of public schools in Lafourche Parish – 9 of 30 – suffered significant damage.

South Lafourche High School lost much of its roof.

Golden Meadow Middle School and Larose-Cutoff Middle School also suffered roof damage.

Bayou Boeuf Elementary School in Thibodaux took on about two feet of water.

"I am really sick of the word unprecedented because that is what we have been faced with, one unprecedented event after another," said Lafourche Parish School District Superintendent Jarod Martin.

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Even before the storm the state's youngest learners, especially third- and fourth-graders, showed the biggest drop on standardized tests given in the spring.

The Lafourche district has 14,200 students.

"My fear is the youngest children learning the most fundamental skills may have gaps moving forward," Martin said.

"The challenge we have is recognizing those gaps and putting together a plan to address those gaps so that we don't have a generation of children for the next decade suffering because of a lack of fundamental understanding of literacy and numeracy skills," he said.

The district is set to start returning students to school on Monday, with the final shift scheduled for Oct. 13 but that may be Oct. 20 – eight weeks after the storm hit.

Other districts have similar timetables.

Even those phased re-openings are tentative because they depend on repairs, schools passing environmental tests, electrical, phone and technology tests, adequate staffing and food supplies.

"It is not as simple as power restoration and then the doors open," Brumley noted.

The Jefferson Parish School District, which is the largest in the state at nearly 49,000 students, has trimmed two days each from fall break, Thanksgiving break, winter break and the Mardi Gras vacation.

Some schools are set to hold classes until June 9.

Terrebonne Parish School District Superintendent Philip Martin said all 34 schools in his system of about 17,000 students sustained damage and four remained without power last week.

"The school system is a a reflection of our communities," Martin said. "When they are suffering we are suffering."

Phillip Martin is the father of Jarod Martin.

All 15 schools in the St. Charles school system were damaged by Hurricane Ida, including twisted roofs and flooding, according to Superintendent Ken Oertling.

School phones were still out of order last week.

Even tentative return dates will feature makeshift arrangements, including students at Destrehan High School being temporarily assigned to Hahnville High School until repairs are made at Destrehan.

Leaders of the St. Charles system and others plan to seek a state waiver to get around the mandated number of school days.

The district has about 9,800 students.

In lower Jefferson Parish, three schools in Lafitte and Grand Isle are closed until further notice, including one that got 42 inches of rain inside.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.