Better weather conditions, fewer evacuees than expected.
Marion County Public Schools will be open on Thursday and Friday, after all, since Hurricane Dorian spared Marion from high wind, power outages or other issues.
The schools had been scheduled to be closed for the rest of the week after emergency management officials decided to open four school-based shelters. By state law, schools are used for emergency shelters during hurricanes or other emergencies.
When the shelters opened, Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier said officials expected nearly 200 special-needs clients to be housed at West Port High School.
Initially, it was believed those evacuees would be in the shelter at least through Thursday morning. And, if power was out at a special-needs client’s home, then the county would not be allowed to remove them from the shelter until power was restored at their dwelling.
Plus, the School District provides transportation for those special-needs clients, many of whom are on oxygen. Thus, School District buses are needed for transportation.
But, as it turned out, only 25 special-needs residents sought shelter at West Port, which was set up exclusively for special-needs clients. Officials said 18 others sought refuge at the other three school shelters, which were for the general population.
After Marion County received little rain and wind, Maier said it was determined that the evacuees could be taken home from the shelters on Wednesday. Officials determined there was ample time to get the campuses ready for Thursday and Friday classes.
“We were glad we could step up for our community and I am happy to see the kids will be back in school (on Thursday),” Maier said.
The change in plans was announced Wednesday morning, about 12 hours after Sheriff Billy Woods posted a video on his agency's Facebook page chastising citizens who complained about schools being closed all week. He called such critics ill-informed whiners and crybabies.
“Apparently, my county commissioners, the School Board and here at the emergency management center, we are getting phone calls asking and questioning ‘why are the schools closed this week,’ ” Woods said on the video, which was recorded Tuesday night at the emergency center.
Woods said callers were asking why some counties are closing schools for a shorter period of time than Marion was.
“This is Marion County,” he said. “I don’t care about the other counties. I care about the citizens that live in this county. For you that are whining about the schools that are closed, I need to give you a little insight.”
Eastern Marion County, specifically the Ocala National Forest, was under a tropical storm warning on Tuesday and early Wednesday. That triggered the shelters to open. If the storm's impacts had been as severe as expected, then school would have been canceled all week.
“I will protect everybody,” Woods said on his video. “If people on the other side of the county have to sacrifice, by golly you are going to do it. Please be safe and I hope you got my message.”
School Board member Beth McCall said she stands by all decisions made by Marion County Emergency Management, which falls under the Sheriff’s Office.
McCall said the county was ready to protect the area’s most vulnerable citizens. And, she said, if the storm impacts would have been what was expected, the county was ready.
“And I am glad that all of kids will be back in school,” McCall noted.
Kevin Christian, the School District spokesman, issued a press release early Wednesday.
"We realize some families may be out of town based on earlier announcements, and we encourage those families to remain safe as they journey home throughout the week," Christian wrote in the release. "Returning our schools to classrooms of learning after they’ve served as safe shelters is the right thing to do so our community can return to normalcy."
Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him Twitter @JoeOcalaNews