Bobbie Hartwell was happy to see his kids again – all 500 of them.
When Richland 1 schools reopened Wednesday, Hartwell was there at Hopkins Middle School in the Lower Richland community, waiting for buses to drop off students for the first time since historic flooding earlier this month closed area schools.
“Just talking to kids, greeting kids, you know, just wanting kids to feel welcomed back,” said Hartwell, the principal at Hopkins Middle. “I missed my kids. In all honesty, I really did miss my kids. When they told us the kids were coming back today, I got excited.”
Richland 1 was the last Columbia-area school district to reopen its doors after the flooding, with district officials citing complications with bus routes and water pressure. In heavily affected areas such as Lower Richland, where standing water remained in low-lying pockets on Wednesday, students and school staff were attempting a return to normalcy.
Hartwell said they were mostly successful, even with a two-hour delay and road and bridge closures that complicated routes to school. No buses were late to Hopkins Middle, which started classes at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Hartwell said. And because the school is not under a boil-water advisory, he said, there was no need to close off water fountains or gather bottled water as many schools on the Columbia water system had to do.
“It’s going to be for the most part a normal day, just on a delayed schedule,” Hartwell said.
Some things, though, were different. Class schedules district-wide were adjusted for the two-hour delay. Bus routes had been changed to avoid closed roads.
The Hopkins Middle staff was working to learn whether any students lost school materials, such as textbooks or school-issued laptops, during the flooding, Hartwell said. Hartwell and Debora Varn, the principal at nearby Hopkins Elementary School, said both schools would keep track of which students were absent and call their parents to make arrangements for getting them to school.
Teachers at both schools on Wednesday worked the flooding into lessons about nature, science, health and more. But they also set aside time to talk about those experiences or let students vent.
“The kids were excited to tell us what happened over the break,” said LaAveria Newton, a third-grade teacher at Hopkins Elementary. “They were excited to be back at school. It was like the first day of school again.”
Levi Johnson, a health teacher at Hopkins Middle, used his dry-erase board to diagram how the storm dumped floodwaters into their area. But he also told students in his first class that he loved them and wondered last week whether they were safe.
“Y’all were my first thoughts,” Johnson said. “I’m so glad that we’re back at this point on Oct. 14. We needed each other at this point. We needed a sense of normalcy.”