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More than 2.5 million Florida students have missed school during Hurricane Ian

Some of the damage caused by Hurricane Ian when it passed through Fort Myers Beach, Fla. The hurricane brought high winds, storm surge and rain to the area.
Joe Raedle
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Getty Images
Some of the damage caused by Hurricane Ian when it passed through Fort Myers Beach, Fla. The hurricane brought high winds, storm surge and rain to the area.

Updated September 30, 2022 at 4:40 PM ET

Millions of K-12 students missed school this week in Florida, as nearly every public school district in the state closed its buildings during the onslaught of Hurricane Ian.

At least 55 of Florida's 67 public school districts closed for at least one day, according to the state's department of education, district websites and social media. The districts that remained open were largely in the state's panhandle.

That amounts to more than 2.5 million students out of school, based on the most recently available federal data on public school enrollment. Around 1.7 million of those students missed three days or more, and several districts have yet to announce their reopening plans.

Hillsborough County Public Schools, which includes Tampa and is one of the largest districts affected, closed for all five days to prepare its schools to serve as emergency shelters. With more than 200,000 students, the district is the nation's 6th largest.

This week, school buildings in the district sheltered around 9,000 people, according to Superintendent Addison Davis.

Davis says he's concerned about lost instructional time.

"We had great momentum taking place at the start of the year. This year was the first year we kind of felt like we had some normalcy," Davis says, referring to the pandemic disruptions of the two previous years. "So we got to regain that ... and really create that momentum back once again."

The district was spared the worst of the storm and plans to reopen all schools on Monday, Davis says.

Ovett Wilson is the principal at Pizzo K-8 school in Tampa, which was turned into a shelter during the storm. He says he felt prepared for the crisis, largely because he had already worked a previous hurricane there.

"It's obvious that things are different climate wise, and the frequency of hurricanes has been a concern, especially for Florida," Wilson says. Climate change has made hurricanes like Ian more common.

Wilson says he isn't too worried about the disruption.

"In my mind," he says, "it doesn't feel like there will be a major loss because, again, we're used to this."

But for many of the districts in harder-hit areas, the outlook into next week is much less certain.

Further south in Collier county, which includes Naples, educators don't yet know when schools will reopen.

"To watch cars floating away, businesses, six, eight, 10 feet of storm surge, that's what surprised everybody... These are things that people would think never would happen," says Kamela Patton, the superintendent of Collier County Public Schools.

Patton says one of the biggest barriers to getting schools back up and running is whether or not the buildings have electricity.

"Schools represent the stability of the community. So the quicker we can get our kids back, even if it's not perfect, but back, allows our parents to get to their businesses and their work," she says, adding that they're aiming to reopen "the first day that we possibly can."

"Any day away from instruction, our students will suffer from that," says Rania Peacock, the principal at Corkscrew Middle School in Naples. "We just want to keep moving forward and doing the best that we can. But the first thing is safety and making sure our staff and our students are being taken care of."

Ronna Smith, the principal at Oakridge Middle School in Naples, says many of her students live nearby – and went to the school on Thursday to see how it had fared.

"I had five of my students stop and just check on the school to see how it was and that everybody was safe," Smith says. "They came up and hugged me and were so happy that they saw the school was good and that they knew they'd be coming back soon."

During the hurricane, both principals worked at their schools, which had been converted into emergency shelters just like the schools further north in the Tampa area. That's common in natural disasters across the country.

"What we're seeing is schools responding in so many ways and playing so many important roles in emergency response and even recovery in so many of these communities," says Jeff Vincent, a director at the Center for Cities + Schools at the University of California, Berkeley. "What you often hear among school leaders and school designers is that they don't design and build schools. They actually design and build emergency centers. And I think there's some truth to that."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.