Vermont Schools Still Recovering in Hurricane Irene Aftermath

Friday, September 23, 2011

The floors are just bare concrete, but students are back in class at Moretown Elementary School after flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Irene forced it to hold classes outside under tents ? including one cold, stormy day when students huddled under blankets and sipped cocoa during math.

Like other Vermont schools, Moretown had to adapt to get students back to school as quickly as possible ? a top priority in the upheaval from the Aug. 28 storm, which swept over Vermont just as the academic year was beginning.

"I think with the devastation that occurred there was this urgency to get our students ... back to some level of normalcy," Principal Duane Pierson said.

At least five Vermont schools were closed until further notice and about 120 delayed opening for the school year after the storm. All have reopened, some with special accommodations and limited bus service.

With damage estimated at more than $300,000, Moretown took the kids on the road with field trips for three days when it opened Sept. 7. Last week, it held classes under big party tents on the recreation field, with students sitting on tarps or on lawn chairs brought from home.

The big challenge was the stormy day, when teachers did their best to keep students warm while it poured and math was taught with paper and pencil.

"It was really a sight to behold," Pierson said.

Fourth-grader Chester Baughman, 9, said the kids wrapped themselves in blankets donated by the town and drew in their sketch books under the tents.

"One of the kids got onto the bus and said, `Mr. Pierson, this is best day ever,'" the principal said.

While school under tents "was really fun" with storytellers and other performances at the end of the day, Baughman is glad to be back in school.

"It's a lot warmer in there," he said.

In South Royalton, where Irene caused an estimated $1.5 million in damage to the school, modular classrooms have been set up in trailers. The school hopes to have repairs done by January, including the replacement of boilers, which were under 5 feet of water.

But the damage delayed the start of the school year by only four days. Kids longed for a normal routine, principal Shawn Pickett said.

"We were starting to get kids coming to school saying, `When are we going to start?'" he said.

Commutes have doubled for a few faculty members who live in nearby towns that were cut off by road damage. In Bethel, the start of school was delayed because so many students couldn't get there.

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