coronavirus

These Dallas Schools Endured Two Disasters in One School Year

Principal, students say tornado experience taught them the resilience they need to get through pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic is enough to test the hearts and minds of staff and students across North Texas schools.

But imagine going through not one, but two disasters in one school year.

That’s exactly what the Dallas ISD schools who are still transitioning from the Dallas tornado are going through right now.

Thomas Jefferson High School was destroyed by a powerful tornado in October, leaving displaced teachers, staff and students in a haze of confusion in the midst of their school year. Two other schools nearby -- Cary Middle School and Walnut Hill Elementary School -- were also badly damaged or destroyed.

And while the school once again weathers another type of the storm with the rest of the world, they say the experience with the tornado helped to develop a tougher skin to get through it.

“It was a struggle for everybody, we’re just getting back and we didn’t have any materials,” said 9th grader Evelyn Loma of the chaos after the tornado.

Students were out of school for weeks and were eventually moved into a temporary building nearby, one that they will stay in for the next two years while their former campus is renovated. Staff said they were scrambling to react, with just a few days to process the devastation and pivot to a new plan to continue educating students.

“A transition like we’ve had to go through is extremely difficult and it’s still is difficult because we’re still going through it,” said Principal Sandi Massey, who has been applauded by the community for her positive spirit in guiding her campus through such a difficult time.  “We’re still working through the transition. Teachers are still healing, there’s still grieving happening. But it is getting better, I’ll tell you that.”

Through video chat, NBC 5 spoke to Massey and one of her students — as they both practice social distancing in this new world of COVID-19.

It has only been five months since the tornado turned their lives upside down but they shared with us some pictures of their time in the months since, showing how they overcame such a terrible experience by coming together.

“When a situation like this occurs, it’s completely out of our control. There’s no way we could see this coming," Massey said. “Every time you have to go through something that forces you to be resilient it gives you faith to be resilient for the next thing that comes up."

Life went on. The students helped clean up that temporary building and moved right in, classes and pep rallies continued, and teachers and students wrote uplifting notes to each other.

"All the things to struggle with. And having nothing. And still having to go to school and get an education," Loma said of the transition after the tornado. "One way or another, we’re going to manage to get through this.”

It’s that encouragement and determination to move forward that principal Massey and her kids said will help us all get through the challenges ahead.

“If you lean on each other and lean toward thinking positive about a situation, you’re likely to get that out of it," said Massey. “Whether you’re a student, or a staff member, or you’re just a parent at home, we’re all in this together. Literally we’re all in this together, the whole world. It’s kind of exciting to know that we can do this together.”

Loma said her family is experiencing their own struggles right now, with her father's work at Texas Roadhouse and Whiskey Cake in Irving both having to close. They're hoping to-go orders will pull them through.

But she said preparing for her online schooling has been difficult. She does not have WiFi access at home and relied on a Jack in the Box nearby for free internet access. With all restaurants shutting down, she's hoping to get set up through extra assistance and tech services the school district is proving for students.

“There is always a light at the end of a tunnel. we’re going to end up getting through this," she said. "Definitely for people to realize how much is as students and a community are going through. But also how much all of this is connecting us.”

With Dallas ISD closed indefinitely, teachers across the district are shifting to online classes. Massey said the business community is stepping up to ensure every child has access to WiFi.

And some more good news for DISD schools -- Massey said with this week being spring break, they were able to prepare teachers and students last week with extra laptops and instructions for online training for they embark upon online learning.

“It was kind of like the tornado where we just said, 'We got stuff to do! Nobody has time to panic!" said Massey.

A few staff members will report back to work at the high school on Monday to answer phones and pass out additional technology to help students navigate the rest of the semester.

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