TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — When classes resumed in August, a number of school districts in the Florida Panhandle found that many of their students never came back.
In Bay County, the school district lost more than 3,200 students.
In rural Jackson County, 114 fewer students showed up than in the previous year.
And, in Calhoun and Gulf counties, school officials reported 83 and 32 fewer students enrolled, respectively.
All of the counties were pounded by Hurricane Michael in October 2018. Almost a year later, entire school systems are still recovering from long-standing damage and dealing with the disruptive aftermath of the storm.
Weeks into the new school year, school officials in Bay and Jackson counties had to handle students who needed to be involuntarily committed under the Baker Act for mental health reasons.
“Before the storm, the Baker Act was not something we tracked. It was so unusual. It was something unfortunate that happened to a student,” said Sharon Michalik, spokeswoman for the Bay County school district.
The situation changed after Michael shredded the region.
The district now gathers data on the number of kids who are in critical need of mental health services, so school officials can systematically tackle the crisis, Michalik said.
So far this school year, more than 100 students in Bay County have been referred for mental health care, while 16 others have been admitted for examination under the Baker Act, according to Michalik.
During the same time period, school officials just a few miles north reported that four children had been involuntarily committed under the Baker Act in Jackson County. School officials in neighboring Gulf and Calhoun counties said none of their students have been referred for Baker Act examinations.
“It’s a mental health crisis not just for the students, but for the professionals in the classrooms as well,” state Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, told the News Service of Florida on Thursday.
Arnold High School Principal Britt Smith, who has worked with high schoolers for 16 years, says he sees the mental health crisis personified in the daily lives of his students.
In the past, helping students graduate and get into college had always seemed like an ordinary part of the job, he said. Then Hurricane Michael barreled through his community.
“It doesn’t matter that Hurricane Michael happened. It doesn’t matter that they are homeless or that they continue to struggle,” the principal said. “At the end of the day, it’s their GPA and their community service and other factors that colleges will consider.”
Smith’s high school is in the Bay County school district, which as of May 31 tallied 5,500 homeless students, a seven-fold increase since the hurricane hit, according to Michalik.
At Parker Elementary School in Panama City, Principal Christopher Coan said he was encouraged to see around 600 students show up for the first day of school, a number the school had projected to be lower. The bump in enrollment was due to new students who had attended a neighboring school that was shuttered after the storm, Coan said.
“They came back with smiles on their faces, saying ‘I have a roof now,’ ” Coan recalled.
But small changes had to be made for students who lost not just their homes, but the items inside them, such as the green and white shirts that match the school’s colors. Coan said the district decided to waive the color-coded uniforms, as long as kids wore “appropriate” clothing.
Smith, meanwhile, said he knows student athletes attending his school who were once vying for state championships but, after their homes were wrecked, are now either homeless or “couch surfing” with a friend.
Hurricane Michael’s destruction of thousands of homes exacerbated a housing crunch that has fueled some of the issues already plaguing school districts, from student homelessness to a struggle to attract quality teachers unable to find affordable housing in the region.
“The housing shortage continues to be the biggest thing that is crippling us,” Michalik said.
Trumbull said the housing crisis is a key issue he intends to tackle in the 2020 legislative session, which starts in January. But he also wants to push for funding to replicate some of the relief the region received for the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.
School districts affected by Michael received a one-time relief package in the 2019-20 state budget that included $12.5 million for Bay County, and hundreds of thousands of dollars for eight other hurricane-impacted counties, including Jackson, Calhoun and Gulf.
“I am going to come back with a request that is very similar,” Trumbull said. “Obviously, they still need a bunch of support.”
House Budget Chair Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, said Thursday that the Legislature will have to consider some “fairly significant funding needs” for the Panhandle next session, adding that he is awaiting details from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office.
“I do think that you are going to see some requests from the budget chair standpoint that relate to schools and some infrastructure needs as well,” Cummings said.
Trumbull said lawmakers are planning to meet next month to discuss an early price tag on a hurricane-relief package, which is likely to be considered during the upcoming session.
Bay County high school principal Smith said he hopes to get some long-term relief from the Florida Legislature to help bring quality teachers into the classroom.
“The one-time payment helped get over the hurdles last year,” he said. “But we have ongoing issues that still need to be fixed.”
Trumbull said he is confident lawmakers will approve a new relief package for the upcoming fiscal year.
But the post-storm aid has been slow in coming, a sentiment reflected by Trumbell when speaking of his district’s struggles.
“It still very sad, and we do feel like this is the forgotten hurricane,” he said.