With the first day of classes two weeks away for many, “back-to-school” means something very different this year for more than a half-dozen local school districts that were hit by the Memorial Day tornadoes.
Brookville is making last-minute school building repairs, Northridge is helping families simply get a roof over their heads, and Trotwood-Madison is dealing with busing issues and trying to figure out who’s going to show up on the first day. Educators in Mad River, Vandalia-Butler, Beavercreek, Dayton and Milton-Union are also juggling tornado recovery issues.
Northridge Superintendent Dave Jackson said school staff are focused on families’ most basic needs more so than back-to-school concerns in the devastated southern housing plats.
“We had groups going out into the neighborhoods doing these needs assessments (July 16), and we found people sleeping in their shed, sleeping down along the river in makeshift tents,” Jackson said. “We took action with our church partners, putting people up in hotels and securing apartments and helping with payment of those. It’s craziness. We’re almost two months out now from the tornado … that’s mind-boggling.”
Nearly 15% of Trotwood students displaced
In Trotwood, dozens of homes north of Shiloh Springs Road were destroyed in a matter of minutes May 27, but the school district has been working hard for two months simply to connect with all of the families, many of whom are scattered around the area, temporarily staying with friends, family or in hotels or apartments.
Superintendent Tyrone Olverson said 363 of Trotwood’s 2,500 students, nearly 15% of the students in the district, were displaced from their homes, some to other places in Trotwood, and others to Dayton, Centerville, Springfield and elsewhere. Most families indicated they intend to stay in Trotwood schools, Olverson said, but he acknowledged many of those families’ housing situations continue to change, making the school enrollment picture very fluid.
“I don’t think we’re really going to know until that first week Aug. 12, believe it or not,” Olverson said. “When we open the doors, that’s when we’ll really know (who’s coming).”
That was a key issue nearly every tornado-affected school district raised to the Dayton Daily News. Schools are urging displaced families to contact them now, not to wait until a few days before school starts.
Students who are living temporarily with friends or in hotels miles away get protection under the federal McKinney-Vento program for homeless students, which tells districts to work hard to keep them in their home school.
“The sooner we know if someone needs transportation support (from outside the district), the better,” Brookville Superintendent Tim Hopkins said. He said his district is already working well with a family staying in New Carlisle almost 40 minutes away. “But finding that out the week that school starts would make things difficult.”
Busing and counseling
The Memorial Day tornadoes roared across Beavercreek, largely just north of Kemp Road, ravaging multiple neighborhoods. Beavercreek schools pupil personnel director Bobbie Fiori said her district has two primary concerns.
“One is making sure that students who were displaced by the tornado have their school environment remain stable, because their home life has not,” Fiori said.
The school district is working to build new bus routes so it can transport displaced students from wherever they are and not have to switch schools.
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Superintendent Paul Otten said the district’s planned money-saving busing cuts would have taken nine to 11 buses off the road, but now some if not all of those buses will be needed to pick up kids who were scattered various places by the storm.
“The second challenge that we’re anticipating and hearing from parents is providing the counseling support that students are going to need,” Fiori said, adding that the district is hiring another part-time counselor thanks to a large donation from Hope Church.
Getting ready quickly
Fiori said Beavercreek Schools already has a list of kids impacted, and some school counselors have already met with students whose parents reached out over the summer.
“When your life is chaos and things are really crazy, knowing that your kids’ school environment can remain the same gives some peace to some of these families,” Fiori said. “We’re just working on the coordination of all that, so they’re ready to go on Day 1.”
That first day of classes varies by school district — Dayton and Trotwood schools start Aug. 12, Beavercreek and Mad River Aug. 14, Vandalia-Butler and Milton-Union Aug. 21. None of those districts had significant damage to any school buildings.
Brookville students are scheduled to start Aug. 15, and the district has been doing repairs on its tornado-damaged high school wing all summer to hit that date. Hopkins said Thursday that he’s cautiously optimistic, but will give families a firm answer this Wednesday about the first day of school.
Northridge is a special case. The district already had planned to start school in September because construction is still wrapping up on their new K-12 campus school. Power and water outages from the tornado added delays, and the first day of classes is scheduled for Sept. 23.
Tornado impact varies
School districts said the tornado’s effect on their back-to-school preparation varied dramatically by area, too. Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said DPS was less affected, adding “very few parents and students have notified us of any difficulty at this time.” She encouraged any families in need to contact DPS’ McKinney-Vento office at 542-3304.
Northridge schools have taken the lead on tornado recovery in parts of Harrison Twp. Jackson said school officials “have done a lot of feeding and clothing people,” have worked with a church to give away a dozen cars to people who need to get to work and are helping families with the FEMA benefits process.
Northridge, which has less than 2,000 students, had more than 100 “heavily affected,” according to Jackson, who said some neighborhoods are hollowed out. He said via repeated communication efforts, they’re down to 25 to 30 students who aren’t sure where they’re going to school yet this fall.
Beavercreek schools said they have about 50 families displaced, Mad River is aware of 14, Milton-Union has only a few, and Hopkins said Brookville has had five families submit a “displaced student” form. But he expects that number to rise, as families have been focused on housing and other issues, and are just now starting to think about school.
Many school officials said a word of thanks on that front, that, if such a tragedy had to happen, at least it didn’t happen in the middle of the school year, when families would have had to balance school with putting their daily lives back together.
Serving student needs
Mad River and Beavercreek schools say recent staff training on student trauma and mental health needs will be especially useful when students return.
Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen ran through a huge list of student supports, from mental health-licensed social workers in each building, to anxiety and depression screening for older students, to Trauma 101 training that all staff did last year.
“That training was really focused on building relationships, getting to know and understand your students and where they come from,” Wyen said. “How to be that one caring adult to help serve those students.”
Northridge staff will have a trauma training class on employees’ opening day this fall, and Olverson said Five Rivers Health Centers will talk to Trotwood staff about warning signs to look for a few days before school starts. He said he worries about things like the first fire drill or tornado drill.
“Even me, who was not directly impacted, as soon as I hear alarms going off now, or sirens, or I see dark clouds, my antenna goes up. … So what is that going to look like for our students and staff who were directly impacted?” Olverson said.
Milton-Union Superintendent Brad Ritchey said there’s no established protocol for handling such an unprecedented event. He said community response in his district has been “phenomenal,” but people need to be aware that families and kids have ongoing needs after the initial push is over.
“I think that’s where we are. There’s this ongoing need, and as a school district we’re going to discover what people are still going through,” Ritchey said.
Milton-Union just sent out its busing assignments via mail the past few days, and needs parents to reach out to the district if they don’t receive it. On a more emotional level, he said younger students may struggle to process the sense of loss as time goes on and the far-reaching effects continue.
“(It manifests as) hey, my clothes, my toys, family pictures, things you can’t get back (are gone),” Ritchey said. “But that intensifies that feeling of loss. We need to be on the lookout for that and be ready to talk through that with kids.”
Where to go from here
Several districts have back-to-school events planned.
* Beavercreek: There’s a “Fill the Bus” donation event Aug. 2-3, with families in need able to pick up the items at Shaw Elementary Aug. 4.
* Trotwood: Back-to-school bash is Aug. 3 at the Union Road campus, with giveaways and chances for parents to get questions answered.
* Mad River schools: Day of Giving Back is 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at five parks, with cookouts, and backpack/school supply giveaways.
Leaders of the affected schools say they’ve discussed busing issues with each other, where students have been displaced to another community, but they’ve largely been focused on their own communities rather than trying any collaborative response for back-to-school.
But all shared thanks for the many groups who stepped up to help families and schools, from churches and community groups, to neighboring districts, non-profits and everyday people.
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School officials said with so many things still in flux, they’re urging families to call their school district with address changes, student needs, or questions they have.
“I want parents and kids to reach out for help. I want to encourage them to ask,” Beavercreek’s Fiori said. “I think there are some parents who say, you know, I wasn’t impacted as much as someone else, I didn’t lose my home, I shouldn’t ask. … If you need something, ask. We’ll do whatever we can to help you, or we’ll connect you with (someone who can).”
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