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Oct. 17 is 'goal' for reopening Lee schools; Superintendent says much work needs done; lauds county residents' resilience

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Fort Myers Beach Elementary

A target date of October 17 is the goal for resuming school in Lee County after Hurricane Ian forced the school year to a halt over a week ago, but it isn't clear just yet if the county can meet that date.

"Unfortunately, I have to report that schools will remain closed," Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Christopher Bernier said at a Post-Ian Recovery Press Conference on Friday afternoon. "Our goal is to return, and I can say it again, our goal is to return to an educational environment for our students and teachers on Monday, October 17th. That is our goal."

He said that the school district was not ready to reopen schools the week of Oct. 10.

"Nine days ago, Hurricane Ian landed directly in Lee County. The storm's impact was historic and disproportional across this great Southwest Florida community," Bernier said. 'People have lost lives, their homes and much, if not all, of their personal property. None of us were untouched by this hurricane. Citizens, Community members, support professionals, teachers. This hurricane touched us all."

The superintendent said that certified inspectors have evaluated school buildings and special centers.

"The majority of our schools are considered what are called a low needs environment, meaning they need very little more in order to open. We do have schools that remain in a high needs category suffering significant damage," he said. "Some of them will take time to repair. And some will need even longer because they will need to be rebuilt."

A list of the schools and their conditions follows at the end of this report.

"The reason we will remain closed from October 10th through October 14th is we still have significant and disproportional issues to overcome. Not all of our buildings were impacted in the same manner by the storm," Bernier said. "We still have at least eight schools without power. Some schools, most schools, do not have suitable drinking water. Most of our schools remain under a boil water notice. We still have safety and debris issues which will impact the safe pick up and delivery of our students both to and from school."

Bernier said county's school officials have to ensure that the schools have to reopen in a way that is "safe for students and staff and sensitive to their needs, while being effective enough to provide the teaching and learning that we expect."

The system closed all school buildings for both the safety of students and staff and to provide them as shelters and have remained closed due to the continued need for shelters.

Bernier said the system has been working since Ian plowed through the county with the governor's office, the Florida Department of Education, Lee County Emergency Operations Center and other community partners to help heal and recover from the storm and begin the process of reopening schools.

"So, nine days post storm, this community has rebounded and we are indebted to the men and women who are restoring our infrastructure. They have completed amazing work. But we are just not ready this week to open."
Dr. Christopher Bernier, Lee County school superintendent

He said work will continue in the coming week to remove debris, restore power, and get safe drinking water into school buildings.

"And we'll also be able to further assess our staff ability to return to work as well," he said. "My academic team, my cabinet, my board members are committed and developing a plan and revising plans to return all of our staff, no matter the status of their school building to an educational environment. But there are still many factors, which I have previously mentioned, that must be overcome."

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Fort Myers Beach Elementary

He said staff would gather Oct. 13 to start the process of getting things ready for the Oct. 17 goal of reopening. A day earlier there will be a meeting with the school board to provide an updated reopening plan based on continuing improvements.

"And again, just like the staff, we realize all students may not be able to return. We as a district will remain flexible, with our parents and our students during this period of time. Just as we will remain flexible with our staff," he said. "There are still large hurdles that in no way we control."

Due to the different level of storm impacts across the county Bernier said where students live and where they go to school would affect the return process.

" I remind all of us that this storm hit us in a disproportional way, our barrier islands, people near the rivers, people suffering storm surge were impacted very differently than the community east of I-75," he said. "We will continue to work through these factors and remain focused on creating a revised solution to reopen our schools. And make sure that we work with the developing and improving circumstances."

Because Oct. 17 is a goal and not an official return date, Bernie said the school calendar has not yet been revised.

"We have a lot of work to accomplish in the next, this weekend, in the next week in order to be ready to do that, and at that point we'll work with the Department of Education and with our unions," he said.

He said an Oct. 5 surveyed of staff, including support professionals and teachers, =found that 65% at the middle and elementary schools were already in a position where they believed they could return and that number approached 60% at the high school level.

"That was on October 5 and it was a staff check in," he said. "It was not a readiness to return to work."

He added that schools without a school building to reunify in will be provided another location at another school to to make sure they can accomplish that process, as well.

Bernier also offered the possibility of employment to those who may have lost work due to Ian.

"Our human resource department is ready, willing and able. We have great jobs here in the school district of Lee County and if you are one of those individuals who've been laid off," he said. "If you're one of those individuals who knows that you're no longer going to have employment. We ask that you seriously consider coming down to the Lee County School District as soon as we're open on Monday and make sure that you have the opportunity to get back in."

He listed positions as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, educators, leaders, people in facilities and maintenance.

Bernier also said there would be open houses planned.

"Like when we open school in the fall, we will be conducting open houses at our schools, not only for the school buildings where they're comfortable and already aware of where they're going to school, but especially for those students who may be going to a different environment, but with their teachers," he said.

The current ready or not ready status of Lee County schools as of 3 p.m. October 7

COULD BE READY TO OPEN:

Elementary: Allen Park, Bayshore, Bonita Springs, Cape, Colonial, Carrie D. Robinson Littleton, Diplomat, Edgewood, Edison Park, Franklin Park, G. Weaver Hipps, Gateway, Gulf, Hancock Creek, Harns Marsh, J. Colin English, James Stephens, L:Ehigh, Manatee, Mirror Lakes, Orange River, Orangewood, Patriot, Pelican, Pinewood, Ray V. Pottorf, Rayma C. Page, River Hall, San Carlos Park. Spring Creek, Sunshine, Tanglewood, Three Oaks, Tice, Tortuga Preserve, Trafalgar, Treeline, Tropic Isles, Villas.

K-8: The Alva School, Veterans Park

Middle School: Bonita Springs, Challenger, Fort Myers, Harns Marsh, Lehigh Acres, Mariner, Oak Hammock, Three Oaks, Varsity Lakes.

High school: Cape Coral, Cypress Lake, Dunbar, East, Estero, Fort Myers, Gateway, Ida Baker, Island Coast, Lehigh Senior, Mariner, Riverdale.

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Pine Island Elementary

NOT READY TO OPEN

Elementary: Fort Myers Beach, Hector Cafferata, Heights, Pine Island, Skyline

Middle School: Caloosa, Cypress Lake, Diplomat, Gulf, Lexington, Mariner, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Trafalgar.

K-8: The Sanibel School, NFMAA.

High School: North Fort Myers.

Centers: Fort Myers Tech, Success Academy.