Amidst Chaos, Schools Try to Create Order

Less than 24 hours after a tornado struck down nearly an entire feeder pattern’s worth of Dallas ISD schools, superintendent Michael Hinojosa was standing in front of reporters with a plan to get students back in class.

In a Monday afternoon press conference to provide an update about the 20 schools that were closed in the wake of Sunday night’s EF-3 twister, Hinojosa said that some would be able to return today since their power was restored earlier in the day.

Twelve more ultimately remained closed — Joe May and Kramer elementaries, Medrano and Franklin middle schools, and Hillcrest High School are awaiting power restoration.

Three elementary schools —Burnet, Cigarroa, and Pershing — were being assessed. Pershing, Hinojosa said, is presenting a challenge to assess because the district can’t even get into the neighborhood to check on the school. Nevertheless, students from all three schools are expected to begin attending classes Wednesday — all of them, at Loos Field House.

Crews are working to clear and repair Dallas ISD campuses impacted by Sunday’s tornado. (Courtesy Dallas ISD)

Hinojosa acknowledged it wasn’t ideal.

“We cannot let these students stay home,” he said. “We’ll have as much of a resemblance of school as we can. We need to get parents back to work.”

But for three of the hardest-hit schools, the news was not nearly as promising. Walnut Hill Elementary, Cary Middle School, and Thomas Jefferson High School suffered the most damage, and students attending those schools will not be returning to them this year.

Walnut Hill, Hinojosa said, is likely a total loss, according to insurance adjusters. The roof was torn off and damaged sprinklers unleashed a torrent of water to compound the damage wrought by the tornado. Hinojosa said that discussions even prior to the tornado had been afoot to potentially build Walnut Hill a new school to better accommodate its students. He indicated that the school would be rebuilt.

Recently shuttered Tom Field Elementary, located 2151 Royal Lane, will become the new home for Walnut Hill Elementary beginning Wednesday. Hinojosa said that crews were already making the campus, which has served as a teacher training facility, ready for occupation. Students at Walnut Hill will likely attend school there for at least a year and a half, he said.

He also knows that it’s traumatizing to see your school in the state Walnut Hill Elementary is currently in, and says the district has made plans to make sure that counselors are ready to help students, and that the district’s crisis response counselors are also available at every campus affected by the storm.

“Walnut Hill Elementary has such a rich history,” Hinojosa said Monday. “There are some kids that are going to be traumatized by that building. We have alerted our counseling department that we need to be there.”

Today the district released information to help parents discuss the trauma with their children.

Incredibly, as bad as Walnut Hill looks, Cary Middle School is in the worst shape, and will also need to be rebuilt. The roof has collapsed in parts of the building, and there was significant structural damage throughout the school.

“I saw a police vehicle that had been lifted from the parking lot and thrown very close to the school,” Hinojosa told reporters. “There was significant damage throughout that school. I would anticipate that would also be a total loss.”

For students attending Cary, the news was less ideal than Walnut Hill or Thomas Jefferson High School. The schools 560 students will be reassigned to either Franklin Middle School or Medrano Middle School starting Wednesday, depending on where they live within new temporary boundaries configured by the district. Hinojosa said parents would be getting information on which school their child is assigned to prior to Wednesday.

Hinojosa said that the district had not received clearance to access Thomas Jefferson High School yet. Unsure if the school is a total loss yet, the superintendent said that if it was salvageable, students could be attending by next August.

The school did receive heavy damage, but it was already under construction for improvements under the 2015 bond package. Hinojosa said that it could be possible to turn the current contractor loose on the repairs quickly.

Until then, students will report to the recently closed Thomas Edison Middle School in West Dallas on Wednesday, which is in school board trustee Maxie Johnson’s district.

“District 5 Welcomes Thomas Jefferson,” said Johnson. “We will work together to ensure all kids are safe and ready for learning. ”

Both trustees representing the affected schools said that while the new plan may be inconvenient, it was also the best possible scenario given the circumstances.

“Staff has been in constant communication with the affected families through messenger, social media, and the press conference yesterday,” said trustee Edwin Flores. Flores’ district includes the three schools with the most damage. “I fully support the administration’s plan.  Frankly, we did not have many options, and these are actually really good options given our existing facilities.”

“Busing students to Edison is not ideal, but where else are we going to place 1,800 high schoolers?” he continued. “Field gives us the opportunity to keep Walnut Hill intact. The choices for middle schools were more limited, but I think will end up working out OK.”

“I’m very pleased that the Dallas ISD administration has responded so quickly to a very difficult situation,” said trustee Dustin Marshall. His District 2 includes Franklin Middle School, which will see a student population increase by at least a couple of hundred children. “While I recognize that the plan will be inconvenient for many families, I know that the district has come up with the best possible option to get our kids back to school with as little disruption as possible.”

“As it relates to the schools in my trustee district, I know that Franklin is ready and willing to absorb the additional students from Cary, and I am certain that the combined staffs will work diligently to advance the education of our kids regardless of what building that they occupy,” he added.

Flores said he knows the schools in his district are looking at some significant change thanks to the forced rebuilding, but that he also sees opportunity.

“Looking to the future, I really want to think boldly about the possibilities for the Cary/Thomas Jefferson location (and Walnut Hill),” he said. “I want to make sure we keep our Walnut Hill community intact, with a goal of thinking of ways to expand that program into higher grades.  I also want to make sure we keep the community engaged throughout the process and to think BIG!”

St. Marks Taking it Day by Day

While the official word is that St. Marks School of Texas will be closed at least through Wednesday, school officials tell us that staff and administrators are still evaluating to see what the best course of action is for the rest of the week.

In the meantime, school counselors have been reaching out to families they know were directly affected by the tornado, and the school has also provided teachers and parents with resources to help talk about the traumatic situation as well.

“Multiple buildings on campus were seriously damaged including the Chapel, Decherd Fine Art Center, the Music Building, and the Hicks Athletic Center,” St. Marks  Eugene McDermott Headmaster David Dini said in a letter to parents. “In addition, there is extensive damage to trees, roofs, windows and doors, and school vehicles, among other things. We are currently working to complete a full inventory of campus damage.”

“All activities on campus have been suspended until we can confirm that it is safe for students, teachers, staff, parents, and visitors to return,” he added.

Other Schools Waiting for Power

Episcopal School of Dallas and St. Monica Catholic School both escaped major damage, but remain closed until power is restored.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected].

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