It was just after midnight when the phone rang. The winter storm had knocked out power, causing rolling blackouts across Waxahachie — and across Texas. A local nursing home lost power and didn’t have a backup generator, so city officials were looking for handicap-accessible buses to evacuate residents somewhere they could be warm and safe.
The city turned to an entity that often provides the community with support in the midst of crisis — their local public school.
The school district put its transportation director and some experienced bus drivers on the case. The group went to the barn where the school buses park, warmed up two buses, and moved all of the residents to a warm hospital.
“The city’s emergency department was so grateful,” school spokeswoman Jenny Bridges said. “They told us because our guys were willing to go out and help, they literally saved lives that night.”
“It was the right thing to do, so it was easy to say yes when we were asked to help. It’s a simple gesture of kindness and treating people with dignity,” said Philip Gurke, Transportation Director for Waxahachie ISD. ”God has blessed me with so much, and it was the least I could do.”
This story is just one of hundreds across the state showing how public schools respond in times of crisis to help their students, families, and communities.
From using buses to shuttle shivering residents out of dangerous situations, to opening schools as warming shelters, to setting up makeshift neighborhood food pantries, schools and PTAs rose to the challenge again in the face of a devastating winter storm that impacted the entire state.
And they did it while still dealing with the challenge of COVID and even while responding to storm challenges of their own.
As the snow and ice melted, schools across the state have had to contend with broken pipes and flooded buildings.
In Burnet ISD, a large high school auditorium was submerged up to the edge of the stage — the cushioned front row seats were left soaking in murky brown water.
Natalia Ramback, a principal in Pflugerville ISD, whose office sustained heavy damage due to a malfunctioning sprinkler system, is planning for how to serve students, knowing the damage to her building could take weeks to fix. She said staff volunteers not involved in the cleanup are conducting community walks and phone banks to see if students and families need food, water, power, or other resources.
While doing all they can to help, districts are very concerned both about the immediate impacts of the crisis as well as its long-term ramifications given the challenges so many are already facing due to the pandemic.
“This is a crisis in a crisis,” Leander ISD spokesman Corey Ryan told a local TV station. “We’re very worried about the things that our schools provide that are basic needs for kids and their families.”
Steven Tiger, one of the Waxahachie ISD bus drivers who helped evacuate the nursing home, said not helping the community in a time of need simply wasn’t an option.
“Whether we are getting up in the middle of the night to evacuate a nursing home, transporting meals, backpacks, and supplies during the pandemic, sitting on a Wi-Fi enabled bus so that our students can learn, or transporting precious cargo to and from school, we love to serve our community and enjoy doing it,” he said.
The winter storm once again demonstrated the power and importance of Texas’ public schools. And, as our state works to recover from the dual catastrophes of COVID-19 and the Texas winter storms, it’s clear that a strong recovery requires strong public schools.
Texas schools have stepped up in big ways for their students and communities. It’s time to support them by ensuring they receive the state and federal funding they were promised.