On the first day of school in one Iowa district, there will be some empty desks.
The Hamburg Community School District, hammered by spring flooding, will start Aug. 23 with about 20% fewer students.
“We lost 200 homes, and there’s just nowhere for families to come back to,” Superintendent Mike Wells said.
On the eve of a new school year, Iowa and Nebraska districts in hard-hit areas are dealing with displaced students — both losing and gaining them — and expecting some students will enter school still traumatized by their ordeal.
School leaders say they’re determined to make things as normal as possible for them, aware that for some kids, school can be the most consistent and stable thing in their lives.
Hamburg, a town of 1,200 people, saw families scatter into other communities where housing was available.
Last spring, in the immediate aftermath of the flooding, Hamburg, the Bellevue Public Schools and other districts tried to keep things normal. They sent buses into other districts to transport students made homeless by the flooding back to their home school. But since then, as those families take up stable residence elsewhere and lose their homeless status, transporting them from a neighboring district is no longer possible.
“They’re out of luck,” Wells said. “If they want to come to our school, they’re going to have to transport themselves. And a lot of those families lost their cars and lost their homes. They don’t have means to get back and forth, so they’ll be forced to go to other schools, which is sad. Sad for our kids.”
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While displaced families are the most serious challenge for Hamburg schools, there are lesser concerns.
From March through July 19, the school served as the supply center for Fremont County flood relief.
“We basically had a Walmart set up in our gym, and in our shop area was our food bank,” Wells said.
The gym floor was damaged from the coming and going of pallets of supplies and from workers’ boots carrying in gravel.
Only last week were workers able to begin sanding down and sealing the floor.
“That will delay us at least a week for junior high volleyball,” he said.
Carpet and tiles needed replacing, too, he said.
Flooding also forced the Hamburg Fire Department to relocate its trucks and pumpers to the school’s gravel parking lot.
In mid-July, the waters receded and the trucks were removed, but the lot is “in shambles,” he said.
Some area roads are still closed, making bus routes longer.
On the positive side, he said, the Hamburg schools have a great teaching staff.
And the schools have gotten enough donations that every student can have free school supplies, he said.
Shenandoah Iowa Community Schools Superintendent Kerri Nelson said it’s still too early to tell how many displaced Hamburg students may have moved to her district.
Shenandoah, about 25 miles from Hamburg, was lucky, she said. The flooding only nipped at its edges.
“Those kids are going somewhere,” Nelson said. “It’s whether they’re going to land in Sidney or Shenandoah or even some in Council Bluffs.”
She said her district will welcome families and try to understand their circumstances and assist them.
“I really feel for the families because they’re in a difficult position, she said. “Schools are pretty resilient. We tend to find ways to serve students and tend to find ways to adjust and overcome. But families, they need a lot of support right now.”
Devin Embray, superintendent of the Glenwood Community School District, said he won’t know for a couple of weeks how the severe flooding in Pacific Junction will affect his enrollment.
He said 144 students were displaced.
“We think we’re going to be as normal as we can be,” he said.
In the Fremont Public Schools in Nebraska, 550 students were displaced, 10% of enrollment, Superintendent Mark Shepard said.
Some were displaced only for a few days, some longer, he said.
He said Fremont officials were encouraged by the high summer school attendance at a school serving the flooded area, Washington Elementary.
“We have not had additional requests for transfer paperwork or student records to be forwarded on to another district, which is always the key indicator as to whether or not you’re losing students,” he said.
Shepard said a bigger concern is students suffering from lingering stress.
After the flood last spring, he said, the first rainstorm caused students at one elementary school to cry, worried that the river would flood again.
On the plus side, one district split by a bridge wash-out has been reconnected with a temporary road.
People in the towns of Genoa and Silver Creek can get back and forth on a temporary “shoo-fly” road that runs around the collapsed Highway 39 bridge.
Last spring, officials in the Twin River district serving those towns had to set up a makeshift school in Silver Creek where students learned via teleconferencing on laptops.
In Niobrara, school starts next week, and folks were still waiting Tuesday for Highway 12 west of town to reopen.
Margaret Sandoz, superintendent of the Niobrara Public Schools, said everyone’s eager to see the town reconnected with Niobrara State Park, an important contributor to the local economy.
“That’s going to really boost spirits and hopefully get people feeling better about the future and how we can continue to move forward from that catastrophic event that occurred in March,” Sandoz said.