NEW: All students in Houston district will be able to eat meals for free this year
NEW: "This isn't our first rodeo. We've dealt with flooding before," school chief says
Students were about to return to school in Houston just as Hurricane Harvey walloped southeast Texas.
Now the Houston Independent School District – the largest in Texas and the seventh-largest in the country with 218,00 students – is planning to open its doors for the first day of classes on September 11.
“This isn’t our first rodeo. We’ve dealt with flooding before,” Superintendent Richard Carranza said, describing logistical and planning challenges in an interview Friday on CNN’s “New Day.”
“Based on the buildings we already looked at, we are confident we can get enough ready so that even if we try to combine some schools for a while, we’ll be able to get the school year started.”
The first day of school was to begin Monday. After Harvey struck over the weekend, officials closed offices and schools, with the hopes of opening by next week.
But the Houston district moved back the first day amid concerns about the structural integrity of buildings, safety and the availability of teachers and staff, many of whom have lost everything in the massive flooding.
Principals and their administrative staffs are to return Tuesday. Teachers and other staff “will report back” on September 8.
Carranza said the district has inspected about 120 of its nearly 300 school buildings so far and “the rest we can’t get to.”
Harvey affected all of the inspected buildings – some “very minimally” and “others more significantly,” he said. Some won’t be able to open for a year or so.
But “we know that we currently have enough facilities that we know we can either fix or dry out or get ready for school,” Carranza said.
How will the district cope with the damage?
It’s looking at several scenarios, including “co-locating schools that are inoperable with other schools” and initiating a rolling start to the school year, he said.
A full assessment on damage and repairs needed is underway so officials can determine how they will open on September 11, Carranza said.
Transportation across the waterlogged city of Houston is a concern, Carranza said. “Can we transport 218,000 students?” he asked. “And we have 31,000 employees. Can the infrastructure support that?
It’s also unknown how many teachers and staff will be able to show up for work by then.
“We’re trying to get a pulse on who’s where,” he said. “And will we have a sufficient staff to even start on the 11th? We think we will.”
Free meals this school year
All students will be able to eat meals for free during the 2017-2018 school year.
The US and Texas departments of agriculture gave the district approval “to waive the required application process” for the national school lunch and breakfast program, the district said.
“This waiver will give our families one less concern as they begin the process of restoring their lives,” Carranza said in a statement. “It will also provide a sense of normalcy by allowing students to have access to up to three nutritious meals each and every school day.”
Betti Wiggins, the nutrition services officer for the district, said it will takes months, possibly years to recover. “We expect families to be displaced, students to attend new schools, and many of them possibly using alternative ways to travel to and from school,” Wiggins said.
“We want to reduce any stress connected to food while families work toward getting their personal affairs in order. All HISD students will have access to good food, made with as many local and fresh ingredients as possible and served with love and a smile.”
‘A work in progress’
The Houston Independent School District is one of 17 in the greater Houston area. Many hope to open next week.
Juliet Stipeche, Houston’s director of education, said some larger districts have decided to postpone opening and smaller ones are still assessing conditions.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Stipeche said. “I worry about all the different start dates, but it’s better to get the kids back to school sooner than later.”
Many Houston-area schools are serving as shelters, while floodwaters damaged other campuses.
Stipeche said the districts will need federal dollars to get campuses open and help families and children get ready for the school year.
School officials said they plan to implement a crisis counseling plan to help students.
“I’m super stressed about the kids at the shelters and what will happen as their parents head back to work,” Stipeche said.
About 900,000 students attend 300 campuses in the 17 districts in the greater Houston area.
Austin steps up
Meanwhile, school districts not hit hard by the storm are making room for evacuees from Houston and elsewhere.
In Austin, every school-age evacuee taking shelter will be welcome to enroll there, said Paul Cruz, superintendent of the Austin Independent School District.
“We’ve identified specific schools (that can accept evacuees) … and there is space,” Cruz said, adding he didn’t immediately know how many the city would take in.
As of Thursday, the number was less than 100, he said.
Austin is soliciting donations online to help pay for extra school supplies and other needs.
In another development, school districts and charter schools within Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s 58-county disaster declaration “can submit missed school day waivers for any scheduled instructional days missed this week due to recent adverse weather conditions,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said.
With the waiver, districts that missed days due to Harvey won’t have to make them up on the school calendar, the Texas Education Agency said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect number of students in the Houston Independent School District. There are 218,000.
CNN’s Jason Hanna contributed to this report.