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Reopening of Lee County schools still unclear as building inspections continue

Caffarata Elementary damage
Posted at 6:21 PM, Oct 04, 2022

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — There is no set timeline yet laying out when Lee County students will head back to school. There are many factors to consider such as what schools are safe for students to learn in.

"The goal of my team is by Thursday afternoon to have a recommendation to me as the status of school reopening as of Monday," Bernier said.

The recommendation will come from building inspectors as they go through each school to get a better idea of the damage. Schools won't open on Monday, but we're expected to get a status update then.

"We are making great strides with our buildings most ready and yet, we have some buildings that have been heavily damaged and that will move a little bit slower," Bernier said.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, school officials said 42 schools were impacted on a low level, 29 at a medium and 14 are high.

"I would say with low impact when you look at the outside envelope of the school, the untrained eye on a roof, we could open," Bernier said. "There’s debris maybe in the bus loop or in the walkway."

For medium, he said there could be broken windows or water intrusion. Highly impacted schools means significant damage.

"We believe in some cases that may lead to rebuilds, but in other cases they just need a deeper cleaning," Bernier said about the heavily damaged schools. "They have to be conducted for safety for staff and students, they must be conducted with sensitivity for our community and they have to be comprehensive."

Some of those include Sanibel School, Fort Myers Beach Elementary, Cafferata Elementary in Cape Coral and Lexington Middle School in Fort Myers.

"We have pretty good news on Pine Island. If we can get it power and water, we think we’ll be in good shape at Pine Island, but we have no way to get there currently," Bernier said.

The condition of the buildings is one of the biggest factors when it comes to children going back, along with power and water. Schools are in the process of being cleaned of debris and repairs are being made.

For the students who may not be able to learn at their school because of the damage, Bernier says all options are on the table.

"We’re looking at everything to create an environment that’s effective and ready for students to be able to learn," he said. "Virtual learning is on the table like all options are on the table. We need to make sure those kids stay together as we move them off island and give them another place to continue to learn and grow."

Bernier says to keep students together, they could bring in portables. However, it's just an idea.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Bernier also brought forward a tiered approach idea when it comes to bringing students back, though didn't detail what that would mean.

There are two schools that are being used as shelters: South Fort Myers High School and Ray Pottorf Elementary. The high school has around 2,500 people staying there. It's in the hands of the Red Cross and will stay as long as people need it.

Pottorf Elementary could take some time to clear, when the time comes. That's because Bernier says it's being used as a special needs shelter. They need to transport the people to facilities that can take care of them and some of those facilities were damaged during Hurricane Ian.

Bernier says they are sending out a check-in survey to staff and eventually students. For faculty, they're going to ask about their current situation, living status, where they are and more. As of Tuesday, 99-percent of employees are accounted for.

"When students return to school, we’re going to put the help and supports underneath them that they need," Bernier said.