In Florida, reading, writing, and recovery

It's another sign of normalcy - kind of - as 300,000 head back to school.

After two hurricanes and weeks of cleaning up, Ginger Featherstone isn't the only one finding solace in the sleepy throngs filing into Florida's Jensen Beach High School.

Weeks of canceled classes and torn-apart schools have made even the old irritations comforting to teachers, school officials - and sometimes even students - across the state. "You two, go to the dean's office," the principal tells two freshman girls with their midriffs on display. "Bellies," she mutters.

"Smile, sunshine," she calls to a grumpy sophomore. And to a young couple holding hands: "No love at school." With the state's quartet of hurricanes, she says, "you learn to appreciate the simple things."

Some 300,000 students returned to school Monday after missing nearly all of September, one more sign of a storm-ravaged state slowly returning to normal. For many, it was the third "first day of school" in two months. Here in Martin County, some 17,000 students have spent the last weeks helping with cleanup and hanging out in parks - and tiring of video games run on generators in the heat of homes that still lack air-conditioning.

School ferries and newspaper lessons

It's been a long, perplexing haul here on the Treasure Coast, where Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne hit within two miles of each other. And between destroyed schools, canceled football games and homecoming dances, and delayed state assessment tests, there's still a long road ahead.

On the island of Sewall's Point, the road to the mainland remains cut off - so instead of a school bus, ferries are transporting kids to class in Stuart.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has waived several lost days, but the semester may still last into next year. And though local newspapers are publishing lesson plans, educators aren't too sure whether, or how diligently, students follow them.

For families, children, and a state in turmoil, the school bell's silence has been among the most trying aspects of recovery.

"Florida is very complicated politically and socially, so [school being out] only aggravates systems that are really functioning almost at the edge," says Ben Aguirre, a fellow at the Disaster Research Center in Newark, Del. "Florida is like a zoo: You've got family situations, teachers' unions, and the impacts of social class all at work at a time of systemic strain."

Palm Beach, Okeechobee, Martin, Indian River and Polk counties all went back to school Monday. Still out is St. Lucie County, where Fort Pierce Central High School was nearly destroyed, with 500 windows out and a peeled-back roof - and no return date in sight for students who have already lost 19 days.

"I don't know what they're going to do," says one Port St. Lucie parent. Students in Santa Rosa and Pensacola counties are scheduled to return on Oct. 11.

Patience, if not perfection

For some students, especially seniors, the hurricanes are complicating the high-stakes game of college admissions, says Jensen Beach High School's student body president, Kristin Conrad. Athletes in particular "don't get to play and they don't get to get noticed," she says.

Here in Martin County, a handful of the 20 schools were badly damaged, and National Guardsmen worked overtime last weekend to prepare for students' arrival. Some of them slept at Jensen Beach High School. In St. Lucie, the work has been a purpose with a profit: Up to 1,000 workers made up to $50 a hour. Teachers and teenagers, many of whose own homes were destroyed, have also been helping out with the cleanup.

"We realize it's not going to be perfect, and that some rooms won't be as pretty as we would like for them to be," says Dr. Sara Wilcox, superintendent for Martin County Schools. "We're just hoping that everyone will be patient."

'I just want to get back to practice'

Still, there's worry that districts are opening too soon. Rugs of mold cover desks in some schools and a lack of power has made it harder to dry buildings out. School officials say they're safe, but that doesn't quell all parents' worries.

"I'm not sure I'd let my kids go back just yet," says Paul Palacko, a St. Lucie County father.

But at Jensen Beach, a new high school that was only slightly damaged by the storm, there was a sense of excitement on Monday. "I just want to get back to practice," says Jimmy Fitzpatrick, a football player with the style sense of Spicolli from "Fast Times."

Once high schoolers have shown up, over 400 displaced students from Pinewood Elementary - where the roof blew off while it was being used as a shelter during hurricane Frances - arrive in buses. Jensen Beach doesn't yet have a senior class, so the grade-schoolers, a little warily, move in to the seniors' space.

Bill Waugh, a Georgia State University professor of urban studies and author of "Living with Hazards, Dealing with Disasters," says the return may help psyches as much as smarts: "Once back in school, students will be able to tell stories and share their pain, and that will help the recovery."

On Monday, cousins Joanne Rivera and Damary Cruzado waited for Jensen Beach High to open. They've gone through a lot. Hurricane Jeanne left Joanne's family homeless, so they've been bunking with the Cruzados. Recovery has been crowded, nerve-racking, and exhausting, but, for a teenager, not all bad.

"I was getting used to sleeping in," says Joanne.

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