SPECIAL REPORT: How Panhandle students are overcoming catastrophe


BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — While COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way students across the country go to school, Panhandle students have had a unique challenge since Hurricane Michael turned the community upside down not even two years ago.

“We’re still feeling the effects of it,” said Coy Pilson, Principal of Rutherford High School.

From physical damage evidenced by blue tarps throughout the area to emotional damage that can be seen with each approaching storm, Hurricane Michael continues to affect daily life in Bay County and surrounding areas, no matter how old survivors are.

“A tree had fallen on my grandma’s house when we were in it,” said Aliyah Anderson, a Parker Elementary 5th grader who was only in 3rd grade at the time of the storm.

“A lot of the adults around this county hadn’t experienced a storm as bad as it was, let alone people our age,” said Brian McClain, a senior at Rutherford High School senior. 

For students, the storm was a tragic distraction as many were left without a roof over their head or without their homes at all, and certainly without stability.

Schools, if even operational, were out for weeks. When they did come back, everyone came back a little different.

“On some level, the hurricane affected everybody,” McClain said. 

“Just watching the [destruction] of all the city and the schools, it was sad,” said Parker Elementary school 5th grade teacher, Sylvie Hess.

Teachers like her and school administrators said they noticed a shift in the overall atmosphere on campuses.

“You can see the anxiety among people even after the storm,” Pilson said. “People don’t want to relive that.”

“Every one of us was feeling something,” said Chris Coan, Principal at Parker Elementary. “We were all there as that safety support for each other, so we can try to get back to school.”

Every month teachers, students, parents and staff worked through the damage Michael left behind, slowly adapting to a new normal.

“It was a little hard adjusting, but teachers and staff members and my parents helped me transition to that new normal,” said Esteria Smith, a junior at Rutherford.

Then, the new, “new normal” took hold of the world.

“Unfortunately, the good time, the camaraderie that students have within the school, that now became little boxes or windows on Google hangouts or zoom or something else,” Coan said.

“We have no idea when we’re getting over this,” said McClain, who said at least with Michael there seemed to be an end-date in sight as the community worked together to clean up.

The COVD-19 pandemic flipped an already hurting community and school system back on its head, sending students back home for the remainder of the 2018-2019 school year. 

“I didn’t know if I was gonna pass or not,” said McKenzie Stallings, a Parker Elementary school 5th grader. 

Teachers and administrators said the emotional effects these constant changes have had on students are evident.

“If we are getting settled in, it feels like it’s going to be changed,” said Shaniya O’Neil, another 5th grader at Parker Elementary.

“They’re afraid that something else is going to come along and change everything for them,” Hess said.

Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt said the learning loss stemming from Hurricane Michael and the pandemic is problematic.

“There’s a good number of students that aren’t back to where we all want them to be,” he said. From having to study and work full-time to help support their families in trying times, to simply not having the resources they need to be in school, the issue is something he said will need a lot of attention over the next several years to ensure struggling students are back on track for future success.

“We know that’s going to be the battle we’re going to face down the road over the next 2 to 3 years when the pandemic is over,” Husfelt said. “We hope that’s sooner than later.”

He said mental health remains a big issue for students in the area, as they constantly adapt to the changes this new challenge has presented. However, Panhandle students, teachers and administrators know a thing or two about adapting. 

“I think everybody who went through the hurricane can roll with the punches a little bit better than they could before,” McClain said.

“It conditioned us to be in this predicament that we’re in right now,” Smith said.

Principal Pilson agrees.

“The things that used to bother us, don’t seem to bother us as much,” he said.

A category five hurricane has taught lessons that are hard to learn in a classroom, whether it’s in person or online.

“Life is unpredictable,” said Eric Olds, a Rutherford 8th grader. 

“You’re only as low as you allow yourself to be,” Smith added.

These lessons have made a global challenge seem doable for these young minds.

“If you only focus on the disappointment, your outcome is only going to be disappointment,” Smith said. 

While Panhandle students have a lot to overcome, many are confident that they’re ready to take on whatever challenge life throws at them next. 

“They’re able to become those problem solvers,” said Rebecca Kevern, a Kindergarten teacher at Tyndall Academy. “It makes me very proud.”

“They’re a lot of people that are afraid about the future, but I’m actually optimistic about what these young people will do,” Pilson said. “I think they’re going to change the world, I really do.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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