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In Pasco, mixed reaction to an extra day of school as Irma approaches



Robert Guarino had mixed feelings about sending his two children to school on Thursday with Hurricane Irma threatening the state.

"It's kind of crazy," said Guarino, a cargo pilot, as he stood outside Wiregrass Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, waiting for the gates to open. 

On the one hand, he said, his family could be gathering supplies -- his gas and water were low -- and getting ready to evacuate if necessary. Nearby Interstate 75 headed northward already was congested with cars from points farther south.

On the other hand, Guarino said, his kids would be safe and learning while he could go about his business.

"It's silly to have them come today when you could be preparing," he said.

The Pasco County school district sparked a wide range of reaction when it announced it would conduct classes on Thursday and close Friday, unlike its neighbors to the south and north. Some parents complained that they deserved more time to escape the state, while others praised the district for making an informed decision.

Some staff members worried they couldn't plan or get needed supplies, because they'd be working while others took the day off. A handful of people suggested all the counties should have coordinated, so familes that live in one and work in another would have fewer possible problems.

That resonated in Wesley Chapel, which sits just north of the Hillsborough County line.

Even so, Wiregrass Elementary didn't face massive absenteeism among either faculty or students. Just one teacher called in sick, and only about 50 children missed school. To put that in perspective, that's a bit higher than a regular day, but about half the amount who didn't come on the day of the recent solar eclipse.

Principal Steve Williams said he sent a message home Wednesday night telling parents that, while school would open, he understood that people have concerns and they had to make a personal decision whether to come.

"We try to work with them," Williams said.

Once at school, Williams reminded his staff to stay focused on learning, but remain cognizant that children can be anxious about the storm. 

Students were clearly aware. Outside the main office, a group of fifth graders talked animatedly about the long lines they saw at gas stations, and of the empty shelves inside the grocery stores.

Some of the boys said they were glad to be at school.

"I'm not really scared. I've been in hurricanes," Alexander Condon, a safety patrol, explained. "Tomorrow I'm not going to be very comfortable."

Classmate Malachi Ford, by contrast, said he'd feel safer at home because it seemed like a better shelter filled with more abundant supplies.

Fourth grader Riley Fitzpatrick said she would rather be in school than at home, possibly worrying. Her mom, Deanna, agreed.

The storm "can change on a dime," she said. "But it's safe here."

Several staff members shared that perspective.

Guidance secretary Sarah Chew said her family had made preparations at home, and did not need a day to sit and stew. She has three children, two of whom attend Wiregrass Elementary.

"I'd rather them go and act as if it's a normal day," Chew said. "When they start calling school, that's when it starts affecting the children."

Kindergarten teacher Maritere Garcia said she was working to maintain a "typical day" for her students. They worked on writing animal stories, focusing on characters and events, without any Irma conversation.

"They ask," Garcia said. "We just talk about it in general: We're here, we're safe now, we're together. We don't want to scare them."

Garcia said she had gotten all her supplies together and checked in with family in Puerto Rico, to ensure they survived the storm's wrath.  She never considered taking the day off.

"I'm okay. Everything is cool," she said. "I'm very happy and blessed that everyone is okay."

[Last modified: Thursday, September 7, 2017 5:38pm]


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