A kindergarten classroom of 20 students has gone down to 18 for teacher Sheila Mayo-Deloatch at Princeville Elementary — which now meets in the Bridgers Building, a former elementary school and, more recently, office space and family resource center.
Edgecombe County Schools spokesperson Susan Hoke said some students aren’t coming back to Princeville since families are moving away by choice or necessity after Hurricane Matthew displaced hundreds from their homes.
But the majority of Princeville students returned to school for the first time in about three weeks Thursday. Community members held up signs, passed out pencils, and gave high-fives as K-5 children entered the building and searched for their new classroom.
“We’ve been wondering where you are!,” said a faculty member before hugging an arriving student. “You made it!”
Principal Annette Walker took pre-K students by the hands as they stepped off the bus. They were bused to Bridgers but then had to be picked back up and sent to Stocks Elementary, where the classrooms met state pre-K requirements. Exceptional Children (EC) classes were set up at Stocks and Martin Millennium. Buses took students from all over town — stopping at hotels and shelters for some — to be sure they could make it to the new school location. A form on Edgecombe County Schools’ website allows parents to let transportation officials know where their children are for bus scheduling.
The effort was one by teachers, administrators, and community members throughout the district, state, and country.
“We have been completely overwhelmed,” Hoke said. Donations from all over have provided books, furniture, supplies, clothes, and decorations to get the building and students ready to return.
But there’s still more work to be done.
Princeville residents were allowed to return to their homes for the first time on Tuesday. For many, the clean-up process has just begun. Edgecombe County Schools took a survey at an open house event that evening to identify specific needs for students, families, and over 100 faculty members who were affected. Most wrote clothes, food, towels, blankets, or cleaning supplies. One resident added “anything that will help.”
Dorothy Hinton, executive director of Communities in Schools, stood by the school entrance greeting students with the crowd. She said she felt a calling to come back and do what she could as an Edgecombe County graduate.
“Many of our families are still displaced,” Hinton said. She added toiletries, undergarments, socks, diapers, linens, and sheets to the list of items needed.
ECPS’s distribution center is filled with many of these things, but no official inventory has been taken. On Thursday, volunteers were calling residents to deliver items they requested. The center is located in the central office building, which was in the Bridgers building just a couple years back.
“In a way, it all worked out,” Hoke said.
Meanwhile, the old Princeville Elementary building has been gutted. David Coker, director of maintenance and transportation, said the furniture was already removed, the soaked drywall cut out. Fans were set up to start drying the building.
Coker said he has no dollar estimate on how much repairs on the building will total. “I haven’t even gotten that far yet,” he said. “It’s going to be expensive.”
The timeline on when it will be ready for students again is also unclear. Coker said he guesses it won’t be any time this school year.