When Ashley Walton started her fifth year working at Highland Springs High School, at the semester’s start, she was in high spirits. She’d been impressed by the efforts of new principal Ken White to raise morale, and looked forward to interacting with an energized faculty and student body in her role as an instructional assistant. A few months into the semester, Hurricane Florence left public schools throughout Henrico County to serve as shelters for nearly three hours, on September 17. Walton is still confident in Highland Springs’ future.
“That was interesting, especially with the population I work with, because they’re not used to major changes,” Walton said, “They’re used to getting out of school at four o’clock. It was a strange adjustment, but I will say that everyone in the building handled it extremely well.”
Walton’s experience is one of many, in a school region learning to adapt to the new challenges created by the effects of climate change. The havoc caused by Florence in Richmond was only a prelude to the fall semester, which saw schools from preschool to college-level contend with intense bouts of weather. Almost a month after Florence passed, Tropical Storm Michael resulted in an abbreviated day on October 12 for many high schools and colleges — and a completely canceled day the following week for some, including Highland Springs.
But through it all, Walton remains positive: She credits Highland Spring’s administration for their work to reorganize class schedules when forecasts predict dangerous conditions. These efforts ensure that closures won’t cause students and teachers to lag behind in their instruction.
Similar measures seem to be in place for the Richmond Public School (RPS) system, according to Communications Director Kenita Bowers.
“Our facility services team routinely monitors weather forecasts to ensure that they prepare and protect buildings across the school district. At the first notification that a storm is approaching, a storm team is activated and on alert,” Bowers said. “Once the storm passes, property and building assessments are made, and necessary repairs are implemented immediately, to prevent delay of the students returning to school.”
For Amelia County Public Schools, the effects brought about by Tropical Storm Michael proved to be longer-lasting than most — and meant that schools had to resume normal schedules, despite multiple roads in the area being severely damaged or blocked.
While the extent of damage done to all of Richmond’s schools is difficult to estimate, Bowers notes that hurricanes aren’t always required to create problems: The weather that comes with the fall season can exacerbate already weak and old infrastructure.
“As a school district with so many aging facilities and budgetary constraints, extreme shifts in temperatures can be challenging to contend with,” Bowers said. “At times, when the temperatures shift unexpectedly, it can have a negative impact on school operations; so school leaders always do their best to accommodate the needs of students, to the best of their ability.
“It is also important to note that RPS currently only has 5 HVAC technicians that are assigned to 44 buildings, which makes it difficult to maintain and ensure that equipment is managed appropriately.”
The state of Richmond’s schools will likely continue to be a frequent topic in the political sphere, as the city prepares to seek more RPS funding from the General Assembly in 2019. For now, though, the semester continues. Those on the ground floor for any future forecasts — students, faculty and administrators — are seemingly prepared to take these incidents in stride.
“I definitely think everything’s looking good so far,” Bowers said. “Luckily, these things are happening in the beginning of the year. I know for my students, change can be difficult, but I think that they are handling it as well as they can.”