Sarasota County teachers overcome damage, displacement from Hurricane Ian to teach

Sarasota Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | November 1, 2022

While she plans her lessons, Sandee Coward also is trying to plan where she’s going to live.

Like many other south Sarasota County teachers, the 59-year-old Reading Recovery teacher at Atwater Elementary in North Port found herself displaced after Hurricane Ian. As the school district looked to get its more than 40,000 students back to learning, teachers like Coward returned to the classroom while also trying to navigate life after the storm.

Despite the damage and stress, she came back to work because serving students was a reprieve.

“It’s my saving grace,” Coward said. “You get the schedule back in a routine, and the kids are tired of being at home, so they’re happy to see you, and you’re happy to see them.”

Coming back, she said she’s been able to connect with her students over the shared experience of the storm. Some were unfazed, talking about how excited they were that they could see the sky through the ceiling in their rooms. Others described nightmares, being scared of the dark caused by power outages and the sounds of the storm.

“One of the kids said, ‘I’m so glad to be back at school because I like being with you,'” Coward said. “Those are the things that make coming back feel good.”

A kindergarten art project at Atwater Elementary on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, where students drew their experience of Hurricane Ian.
A kindergarten art project at Atwater Elementary on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, where students drew their experience of Hurricane Ian. Steven Walker

Debra Giacolone, the executive director of student services for Sarasota Schools and one of the coordinators of the district’s employee assistance team, helped organize the Oct. 11 event at Suncoast Technical College where about 350 teachers like Coward were able to find some relief.

Having worked for the district since 2015, she said Hurricane Ian was the biggest mobilization of funds she’s seen. 

“I’ve never seen the scale of this mobilization, to have this many people come together, this number of organizations come together all around a concerted effort has been absolutely incredible,” Giacolone said. 

As of Oct. 17, the district had received about 500 applications for the employee emergency fund, according to a district spokesperson. The district had also received 53 employee applications and 30 family applications for temporary housing.

Specifics about the size of the relief fund and the extent of the temporary housing assistance were not immediately available.

Coward has reached out to the district for aid, applying for funds through their employee assistance program. She said the district and school administrators had been very kind and helpful as she returned to work. 

At her first-floor condo, there was about an inch and a half of water coming in from the ceiling. She had evacuated to her boyfriend’s second-floor condo, but they had to hold the sliding glass door shut during the storm so it wouldn’t break. Water came like giant sheets as if someone was “pouring a bucket from the heavens.”

Coward said she relocated to a temporary rental, living with what she can carry in her car. One morning, she didn’t have any warm clothes packed from when she left, so she had to run to Walmart at 6 a.m. to buy a coat before school.

A tree limb broke through Cassie King's ceiling at her home in North Port, causing water to invade. It was one of four branches to damage the roof, she said.
A tree limb broke through Cassie King’s ceiling at her home in North Port, causing water to invade. It was one of four branches to damage the roof, she said. Courtesy Cassie King

Cassie King, a 39-year-old ESE teacher at Sarasota Middle School, sought aid from FEMA and the school district following the storm. She said the district helped her secure the Airbnb as she waits for contractors to finish gutting and repairing water damage in the home she’s lived in since 2013.

No walls, no floors. Four tree branch-sized holes in the roof.

A North Port resident, King has been displaced since mid-October living in an Airbnb with her dogs Chico and Nina, and cats Ollie and Lola. She said she finds refuge in her work with ESE students.

“When things are going bad in my life, it makes me feel better to kind of focus on somebody else’s life,” King said. “So it’s been good for my mental health to be able to do something positive when there’s so much negative going on.”

Several schools in the North Port area opened a week after the rest of the county because of the extent of the damage. However, Sarasota Middle School opened on schedule on Oct 10, and she didn’t miss a day of instruction. 

“I need to be there for the kids, disaster or not,” she said. “I need to be there to help. I need to be there to make sure they have what they need.”

Water damage in the floors of Wendy Summerson's home in North Port after Hurricane Ian.
Water damage in the floors of Wendy Summerson’s home in North Port after Hurricane Ian. Courtesy Wendy Summerson

Wendy Summerson, 46, is a third-grade teacher at Atwater Elementary. The district helped secure an Airbnb for her and her three kids after Hurricane Ian brought a foot and a half of water into her home.

Summerson said returning to work was very difficult because it was as if life was going back to normal for everyone except her. The students help her escape the stress, she said.

“When I’m working with them and reading with them, it takes me away from all of that,” Summerson said.

Two of her three kids attend Atwater Elementary; one is in fifth grade and the other is in first grade. The return to a routine has been good for them, she said, and seeing their friends again has returned a sense of normalcy to their situation.

Summerson said she attended the Oct. 11 event at Suncoast Technical College but they were out of gift cards by the time it was her turn. She’s filled out financial assistance forms and was still waiting to hear back about aid. 

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