The deluge delivered by Tropical Storm Imelda caused problems all over the Houston area. Streets quickly flooded on the morning of Sept. 19, and so did vehicles, homes, businesses and schools.
But for Dashiel Schiffer, a first-grade student at Durham Elementary, all the rain was welcome. It left him with a light load of classroom assignments.
“He was excited that they didn’t have to do all the work that they were supposed to do,” said his mother, Jane Schiffer. “He said it was the best day ever.”
People all over the city, and even the country, might have gotten a much different impression of the way the day unfolded at Durham. The 50-year-old campus at 4803 Brinkman St. made national headlines after a video surfaced on social media showing students walking across a string of benches in what looked like a flooded hallway.
Online commentators criticized Durham, its parents and Houston ISD – which kept its campuses open Sept. 19 – but parents such as Schiffer said the video was misleading and the reaction overblown. The students were in one of the school’s covered, outdoor walkways, where rain spilled over from the courtyard at the center of campus, and none of the Durham classrooms took on water.
“I think it was a lot of people who didn’t understand our campus and didn’t understand what they were seeing,” said Durham parent Carrie Jaeger, a vice president of the school’s parent-teacher association (PTA).
Jaeger and Schiffer, the PTA president, both said they had not heard of any student illnesses or injuries as a result of them being on campus while the Houston area was inundated with rain. They also praised first-year Durham principal Carrie Flores and the school’s teachers and staff members for helping to keep students calm and comfortable.
Schiffer said art teacher Stephanie Murillo was wading through water and holding students’ hands to help them cross the makeshift bridges, while kindergarten teacher Robin Landa made frequent posts on Livingtree, an online tool to communicate with parents, to show that students were safe and even enjoying themselves. Some watched movies in their classrooms.
Jaeger said her daughter described the day as a “great adventure,” with some teachers wheeling students to restrooms on flatbed dollies to keep them dry.
“We as parents just all day were so appreciative of what the teachers did,” Jaeger said. “I’m sure they were worried about their own homes and own children and own families, but they were there for our kids.”
Jaeger and Schiffer said they did not fault HISD for deciding to keep schools open Sept. 19, because weather forecasts did not indicate so much rain was coming and most of the city was caught off guard. Parents willfully sent their children to school, they said, and many subsequently went to work.
But some parents of HISD students said the district – the largest in the state with more than 200,000 students – should have exercised more caution and called off classes because Imelda was hovering over Houston and the possibility of heavy rain existed. Some parents also said HISD could have communicated better and more consistently across its campuses throughout the day, particularly as it pertained to protocols for having students bussed home or picked up from school.
Some also suggested HISD should build more weather days into its schedule to allow for more flexibility when potentially dangerous storms are present.
“I think we as a city should know better by now,” said a Hogg Middle School parent. “Storms are unpredictable, so let’s err on the side of caution.”
HISD, which cancelled classes the day after the flood, said in a statement the night of Sept. 19 that the weather took an unforeseen turn and the district “followed the emergency management officials’ advice to shelter-in-place and maintain normal dismissal times due to extreme conditions.”
Schiffer, although she did not fear for the safety of her two children who attend Durham, said the flooded walkways reinforced the fact the aging campus has “drainage issues” that need to be addressed. She said the walkways usually take on water during heavy rains.
Still, she credited the employees of the school for making the most of an unenviable situation and ensuring that Durham’s students were safe during the storm. Schiffer said the effort started with Flores, the new principal.
“She had a very good attitude. All the staff members were smiling and happy,” Schiffer said. “I think they felt like they had done a good job and performed well under the pressure.”