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Hurricane Ida Closed Our Schools, Here's What We Need to Reopen Them

Ethan Ashley

On the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (Sunday, August 29th), Hurricane Ida hit the southeast coast of Louisiana. My family, like so many others, rode out the storm with extended family huddled in the dark, including a pregnant mother, a 92-year old grandmother, and several frightened and overwhelmed children. We played charades by candlelight, listened to the whipping wind and sounds of splintering wood, prayed, and tried to sleep a little. While my family and I lived through the full experience of Hurricane Ida’s impact on New Orleans, I, like many of you, would like to focus on our recovery.

After we have all had the opportunity to survey our property, clean our yard, clean out our refrigerator, file an insurance claim and file for FEMA Disaster Relief Funds (Get your FEMA #), the question will remain — how can we best recover from the impacts of Hurricane Ida.

By now, we are all clear about the problem. In fact, a now trending Kanye West once had a number 1 hit single describing the major issue we face — POWER!

As I reflect a few days removed from the Hurricane, I am truly worried. As the leader of one of the largest school districts in Louisiana impacted by Hurricane Ida and as a current NOLA-PS parent, I am worried about our children, as they have not been centered in our recovery efforts.

I am worried for our education system, including our students, educators, and families, because prior to the impacts of Hurricane Ida, we had already been rocked by the impacts of COVID-19. I know that without power, we will not be able to adequately educate students virtually or otherwise. I also know that our students don’t have weeks for us to figure this problem out.

So, what should happen next?

First and foremost, we need to prioritize youth in our recovery efforts! I have listened to several leaders speak over the last 72 hours, and our youngest New Orleanians have not been prioritized. The Superintendent needs to be in conversations with Entergy and Federal leaders about the recovery efforts. 16 years after Katrina, we know that for us to recover well, our children must be prioritized.

What does prioritization of our children look like at this moment?

First, we need Entergy to ensure that schools are considered “critical infrastructure” in this recovery process. At this point, no one is advocating for our students in that regard. And while I am glad that we got first light, with certain substations being turned on, I also know that we need Entergy to do more. As president of the school board, I am asking families to join the Council President, Helena Moreno, in requesting more information from Entergy and ensure that our students are advocated for.

However, let’s be clear, having schools up and running is a step in the right direction to ensuring that students can continue learning, but there are several other steps needed to get students back in the classroom as soon as possible. One of the most critical steps is that we will need to ensure that the families of our students are able to get power back. Some people are asking about virtual learning, but it is not an option when families are without power/WIFI, etc. Additionally, if we do not get schools up and running, this will certainly impair our workforce, which will in turn impact students, as their families battle financial instability.

Right now, it seems like we are living in a strange gray area for our schools and families who are in vital need of services. Luckily, our school system did not sustain substantial structural damage (no buildings were destroyed), but our schools will be damaged by extreme climate changes as they fluctuate between extreme heat and humidity and eventually AC again, which can cause mold and lead to unusable furniture, etc. The longer our buildings aren’t habitable, the more the climate issues will impact the timeline for our student’s ability to return to school. We need Entergy to prioritize schools for this very reason.

Outside of our schools, we have families who can’t receive vital financial assistance without first going through their homeowner’s insurance, which can take months. Many of our families who own houses evacuated and are now being told not to come back to the city because of the lack of power. These families have mortgages (with many payments due this week) and yet they can’t access their homes and are having to pay for shelter wherever they are temporarily living now. They need financial support today. We need FEMA support to kick in immediately for all impacted by the act of God challenges caused by Hurricane Ida.

I am clear that the city council is responsible for regulating Entergy and ensuring that they have the proper infrastructure to withstand Hurricanes. And, while I am clear that Entergy did not meet this charge for this storm, causing many of our highest needs families to suffer on top of being in a global pandemic, the thing we need from our New Orleans city council in this moment is to get a definitive answer on when we can reasonably expect power from Entergy. We have families who are hanging in the balance. If we could provide a clear timeline, this would help with clearly identifying the financial assistance needed, planning for schools, and families being able to plan their return.

The last challenge I want to address is federal. With our families dispersed around the country, those families will need support navigating tough issues around support services (housing, financial assistance, and schooling). Being outside of their congressional districts, they will need to receive information and support from their host cities and congressional members. I know that our new Congressman, Troy Carter, will create the partnerships necessary to ensure those families are supported.

As school board leaders from other cities reach out to me to offer their support, I am certain that many of these school district leaders (Houston, Atlanta, Knoxville, Spring ISD, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Clayton County, Bend La Pine, and Judson ISD) would be willing to accept our students temporarily, if needed, but the financial implications for the districts willing to do this, will certainly need to be addressed federally. But, this could be a moot point if we can get a clear answer from Entergy on when we can receive power back into the city.

Over the next few days, our school district, led by Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. will complete the assessment of the condition of school buildings, checking for any damage and their capacity to reopen once essential services are restored. As work continues, schools will remain closed until there are significant improvements in power throughout the city. The district will plan to provide a more detailed update on the status of school operations moving forward by September 7th, as we work to plug our District into city, state, and federal support to get our youngest New Orleanians back into the classroom safely.

Ethan Charles Ashley joins School Board Partners as the Co-Founder and Partner. Beyond his role at School Board Partners, Ethan serves as an elected Orleans Parish School Board member. Ethan has worked on policy and advocacy issues in many positions, including on the Hill, at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, at the Urban League of Louisiana, at the ADL, at the CDL and for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Ethan is an advisory board member for Bard Early College New Orleans, a rigorous, credit-bearing, tuition-free college course of student in the liberal arts and sciences available to junior and senior level students. Ethan is also a board member of the Boy Scouts of America Southeast Louisiana Council, the National Juvenile Justice Network and the New Orleans Regional Leadership Institute. He is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, Fraternity, Inc., where he has inspired colleagues to support youth through scholarships and mentoring. Ethan was a 2014 fellow of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network. Ethan is a member of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, LA.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Ethan graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School, a law magnet high school in Los Angeles, at the age of 16. Afterwards, he continued his education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he obtained a Bachelor of Science in Political Science and a Juris Doctor degree by the age of 22.

Above all, Ethan is a strong advocate for equity, business development, youth justice, civil rights, and servant leadership.