Education

From Hurricane Irma to Parkland, was this the most stressful school year?

A Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior reacts after leaving his graduation ceremony at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on Sunday, June 3, 2018.  Broward County classes ended Wednesday.
A Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior reacts after leaving his graduation ceremony at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on Sunday, June 3, 2018. Broward County classes ended Wednesday. mocner@miamiherald.com

Can you remember August 21st?

That was the day thousands of people paused to gaze up at the sky at the solar eclipse. It made for a memorable first day back to school for more than 340,000 students in Miami-Dade County.

If it feels like a century ago, it's probably because the days that followed the eclipse culminated in one of the most eventful and stressful school years in recent memory. Schools weathered a hurricane, accommodated a swell of student and teacher evacuees from Puerto Rico, mourned the deadliest school shooting in Florida history right here in South Florida and spent hours investigating hundreds of fake threats that followed.

But today, Miami-Dade schools will say good riddance to a year thrown off track by disaster and tragedy. Broward schools closed for the summer Wednesday.

The 2017-18 school year has "certainly been one to remember," said Frank Zenere, a Miami-Dade school psychologist and district coordinator for a crisis response team that deploys to schools after tragedy strikes to counsel students and staff.

While Zenere had no data to show how many times counselors have been called to schools, he said he has heard that students and some staff are more fearful for their safety. He is also on a national crisis team that assisted in the days following the school shooting in Santa Fe High in Texas and after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

"One does not have to be in the midst of a tragic occurrence to be traumatized by it," he said. "We’ve had a number of very personal exposures this year, which I think makes it a different type of year than typical."

Just 12 school days into the school year, Gov. Rick Scott ordered all schools statewide to close to brace for a voracious storm named Irma.

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People at a Red Cross shelter set up at North Miami Beach Senior High School eat lunch, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 before Irma made landfall in Florida. Wilfredo Lee AP

Forty schools opened as shelters to accommodate three evacuation zones in Miami-Dade. And though Irma didn't seriously damage any schools, it knocked out the power in enough homes that 5,500 signed a petition to delay the return to school. The storm shaved off seven school days in total, made up in part by cutting two teacher workdays.

Hurricane Maria bore down on the Caribbean weeks later. Florida took in 7,200 students — Orange and Osceola counties took in the lion's share — and hired dozens of teachers from Puerto Rico. Miami counted more than 700 students from the island in December.

After she got sick from drinking contaminated tap water, Joanyri Hernandez left her ravaged town in Puerto Rico and found work teaching English to freshmen at Barbara Goleman High in Miami Lakes.

"In my 15 years of teaching, I’ve never had a longer school year than this one," she said. "I thought it wasn’t going to end."

But everyone agrees: The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland that left 17 dead and 17 wounded was the breaking point.

Its close proximity hit home for many, Zenere said. "This is unprecedented in terms of the magnitude of that event."

"For me, it changed everything," said Mayade Ersoff, a social studies teacher at Palmetto Middle. "The way I feel about safety in schools, the way I feel sorry for the kids and the teachers, it has put a lot of fear in me that I didn’t have before."

"And this fear will stay with me forever," she said.

The shooting was a new source of stress for Hernandez, who now lives in Pembroke Pines.

"That would never happen over there [in Puerto Rico]," she said. "I was scared that it could happen anywhere. But I think that’s something that’s been happening for so long over here, I was already prepared for that to happen."

Following Parkland, the Miami-Dade school district said school threats skyrocketed from once a week to 50 a day. The district has recently partnered with the FBI on an awareness campaign about the consequences of making hoax threats.

"The number of phone calls and emails from parents I’ve never met, as well as my own circle of friends, the concerns are pretty much the same," said Alvin Gainey, the outgoing president of the Miami Dade County Council of Parent Teacher Associations. "The question is very simple: 'What are we doing?' and most importantly, 'What can we do next?' "

Gainey said he saw each phone call as an opportunity to reassure parents that the district is swift and thorough in checking out threats.

"When they [students] see something, they’re speaking up. They’re saying something," he said. "They feel safe enough to be able to speak up, which means they’re taking on their own efforts for making sure their schools are safe."

Summer vacation will be a welcome respite.

"Going into the summer I’m relieved," said Ersoff, the Palmetto Middle teacher who says she's coordinating efforts to have students stay home from school this fall in protest over the lack of gun control legislation. "I'm just totally relieved that I don’t have to feel that fear for a while."

Zenere said summer provides students and school staff the opportunity to recharge and look ahead.

"As we always tell our caregivers, that the caregivers need to take care of themselves, too," said Zenere, the Miami-Dade psychologist. "It’s very important that [when] we practice self care that we maintain our personal well being ... as professionals."

The first day of the 2018-19 school year will be Aug. 20 in Miami-Dade and Aug. 15 in Broward.

Colleen Wright can be reached @Colleen_Wright.
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