Education News

Houston Parents, Teachers Frustrated District Didn’t Cancel School During Imelda

Many parents and teachers felt they were forced to travel in dangerous flooding conditions, at the same time city and county officials were advising people to stay off the roads.

Parents wading through waist-deep water to retrieve their kids from school. Children stepping into water and climbing into firetrucks to go home. Teachers scrambling to find a place to stay with roadways flooded. Students walking on benches to avoid standing water in a classroom hallway. Principals staying late at school as kids wait to be picked up in the gym and cafeteria.

These are just some of the stories emerging from the Houston Independent School District in the wake of the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda, as the administration’s decision to keep schools open Thursday is drawing increased blow-back.

“This is gross incompetence,” tweeted Daniel Santos, a sixth grade teacher at Navarro Middle School in the East End and a leader with the Houston Federation of Teachers.

“It was all-around a day that could have been avoided had HISD been more sensitive to the possibilities, the risks later in the afternoon,” Santos later told Houston Public Media in an interview. 

He said that at his campus Thursday, his sixth graders grew anxious with the rain and couldn’t focus in class. Later, parents crowded the main office to try and retrieve their children. Santos said they took on the risk of driving in dangerous conditions. After 4 p.m., he said that there were still several dozen children waiting in the gym and cafeteria to be picked up.

“I think what they should have done is just canceled like many of the districts around us who were expecting the degree of flooding around them,” Santos added.

In a letter to parents late Thursday, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said that leading up to the storm, she had multiple calls with meteorologists and emergency agencies. She said that she had another call at 3 a.m. the morning of the storm to make a final decision on closing the state’s largest district or delaying classes. Lathan decided to stay open. Other districts, such as Humble and Santa Fe, announced they would close.

Lathan wrote in the letter that when Imelda took an “unforeseen” turn, they tried to follow emergency officials’ advice to shelter in place.

Still, many parents and teachers felt they were forced to travel in dangerous flooding conditions, at the same time Houston’s mayor, Harris County officials and others were advising people to stay off the roads. 

When asked about the situation with HISD, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo declined to support the decision to stay open Thursday.

“It’s impossible to tell. I don’t know what all went into their decision. But we made the decision early on to have families heed the advice of individual school districts,” Hidalgo said.

But for Erin Smart, a 16-year-old sophomore at the Houston Academy for International Studies near downtown, it’s not enough for HISD to tell parents and students they’re “monitoring” the weather.

“That gives some clarity and comfort, but when weather gets this bad and we’ve had experiences like Harvey, people want more security and to know more what’s going to happen,” Erin said. 

She added that many of her classmates rely on the Metro bus and panicked to find a way home when Metro shut down service during Imelda’s downpour.

HISD closed schools Friday “to allow our students and staff time to recover from the conditions resulting from Tropical Storm Imelda and prepare our buildings,” according to a statement late Thursday. Classes are expected to resume Monday.

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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