HURRICANE FLORENCE: Pender schools reopen after 29 days

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NC Superintendent Mark Johnson pledges continued support after historic storm

HAMPSTEAD — Ceiling tiles were still missing in many Topsail Elementary School classrooms Monday. But after 29 days out of school since Hurricane Florence, students and staff didn’t seem to mind.

Pender County Schools reopened Monday morning and welcomed a special guest: State Superintendent Mark Johnson. The leader of North Carolina’s school system walked classroom to classroom, high-fiving students and thanking their teachers. Topsail, one of several Pender County schools to serve as a shelter during the hurricane, sustained damage and mold growth that kept it closed for more than a month.

“It is important as an elected leader in Raleigh to come here and bring back the story,” Johnson said, “to remind everyone across all of North Carolina that our students here in Pender County are just now getting back to school.”

Monday Johnson also planned to visit Duplin County Schools, which is not expected to reopen until Wednesday. While state legislators have given storm-struck districts a waiver for up to 20 days of missed class, Johnson said they may have to give more calendar flexibility to districts like Pender — such as adding school days onto the end of the year in June.

He said his office was studying school make-up plans utilized by districts in Houston after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey.


Pender Superintendent Steven Hill said the district has come up with three possible make-up calendars that teachers and staff will get a chance to review before the school board approves one. He said options include longer school days, eliminating teacher work-days, more days on the end of the year and Saturday school.

As school board chairman Kenneth Lanier told Johnson, testing is also a big concern for schools, which are graded by the state in large part by how well students do on end-of-year tests. Johnson said his office was reviewing options to move around testing for the hardest-hit districts.

“I want them to know, we know how much they’ve gone through and Raleigh is with them for the long road to recovery,” he said.

Hill said that the recovery process for Pender County is not a matter of weeks, but years. More than 700 of his students and 74 staff members were displaced by the storm, and schools still need to find funding for long-term repairs.

Legislators approved an additional $60 million for capital improvements to schools last week as part of an $800 million recovery package, but it’s unclear how much will go to Pender.

“We just really need everyone not to forget about us,” Hill said. “Schools are the heartbeat of Pender County. … This is the first step toward normalcy, toward getting our county breathing again.”

Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at