A Race Against Time: With community’s backing, Plainview Elementary rallies in the wake of destructive storm

A Race Against Time: With community’s backing, Plainview Elementary rallies in the wake of destructive storm

By Tyler Dahlgren

The Storm

For a moment, it looked like a hurricane ripping through the Midwestern Plains.

That’s the best superintendent Dr. Darron Arlt can explain the storm that literally blew the roof off Plainview Elementary late in the afternoon on July 10, setting off a five-week race against time before students were to return from summer break.

“It looked like what I’ve seen on the coasts when they have a hurricane,” Arlt said. “Just straight winds and rain. That’s all you could see.”

Arlt was hanging around home with his family when the radar caught his eye at around 5 p.m. The cell was small yet mighty, and tracking straight for the small town along Highway 20 in Northeast Nebraska. Arlt thought maybe it’d shift. By 5:20, it was obvious that it wouldn’t.

“We realized then that we were going to have a heck of a storm,” he said.

Ten minutes later, Arlt had trees down in his yard and decided to reach out to the Plainview School Board, who was scheduled to meet that night. The meeting was in jeopardy, he told them.

Moments later, he received a message back from board president Tim Rasmussen, whose daughter Claire was working as a lifeguard at the city pool when the storm hit. There was serious damage up by the two schools, which share either side of Woodland Avenue, she had indicated.

“I drove up to the schools during a monsoon rain and tried to assess what had happened,” said Arlt, who was confused at first. “I was able to look across the street and determined that one massive piece of the elementary roof stayed together, somersaulted into the air, and blew right into the tall exterior wall of the high school building’s gymnasium.”

Video surveillance shows the roof being ripped off the building at 5:30 p.m., something straight out of a movie. 

Just minutes before, Plainview Elementary principal Jen Hodson and her husband had retrieved their daughter’s truck from the high school parking lot and taken it to the cover of their garage. The Hodsons, who live four blocks from the school, were likely the last people to see the school before the storm delivered its biggest blow.

Hodson’s phone started dinging after they’d returned home, text messages from community members concerned about potential damage to the schools. Like Arlt, she ventured to the school through torrential rains, and was taken aback by what she saw.

“My first thought was, ‘Okay, how bad is it inside if our roof’s gone and there’s all this rain?’” Hodson said. “We were told the electricity was fine in the building and allowed inside. The workroom had taken on the most water, and so we immediately started removing what we needed to, things like new textbooks and technology devices, and taking them to dry ground.”

They did so frantically. That was a bleak moment. Daunting and overwhelming, too, but it wouldn’t take long before word traveled through town. 

“While we were trying to decide what was going to happen next, we already had school board members making phone calls to get Floor Tech in here to soak up the water and a construction company here to remove the fall roof from the side of our high school building,” Hodson said. “Within the hour, all of these different things are happening. Several phone calls were made and we had a swarm of people in the area just kind of checking on things and surveying the damage.”

It was all-hands-on-deck, and the folks in Plainview didn’t flinch.

The Race

The week before the storm, Plainview’s custodial staff had the elementary school cleaned, waxed and polished for the 2023/24 school year. 

The storm’s aftermath left three classrooms, pre-K, kindergarten and third-grade, inhabitable. More decisions needed to be made. The first day of school was exactly five weeks away, and the staff was determined to stay on track.

Hodson’s initial thought was moving those displaced classrooms to an off-campus location. Given her building’s already-limited space, the idea of relocating within the building hardly crossed her mind.

“The public library and the Methodist church are already our emergency locations for these types of situations,” Hodson said. “That’s right where my mind went. They’re each just a block away.”

Hodson then worked the phones, contacting city and church officials to work out logistics. Arlt called her leadership “terrific”, a key factor in the district winning a whirlwind race against time.

Another factor, he continued, was the resiliency of Plainview’s staff, students and community. The last handful of years have been challenging for schools across the country, but they did learn some valuable lessons.

“This disruption didn’t stop us from starting the year on time, which is the most important thing, to get kids in a classroom with their teacher,” Arlt said. “That’s where kids want to be. That’s where teachers want to be. That’s where the kids’ parents want them to be. And there was never a question about whether we would start school on time.”

Arlt said that early on, while the elementary roof was still propped against the high school’s exterior. Hodson said Arlt was probably a little more confident in that declaration than she was, but the more folks pitched in, the more progress was made. Her entire staff came to the aid of the displaced teachers, who set up classroom space at the public library and Methodist church across the street.

They just might pull this off, she thought.

“We’re one gigantic family in many ways,” Hodson said. “We help each other out with personal things in our lives and we help each other with professional things at work. There were tons of people who reached out wanting to help. Throughout the process of relocating and moving things, we had community members who were the same way. They wanted to offer their help. It was overwhelming the amount of support we received, and it came from everywhere.”

There was no need to bring in lawyers or anything of that nature, either. No need to worry about possible litigation or any potential headaches. A simple handshake agreement with United Methodist Church and the Plainview Public Library to house classrooms in their facilities for a month, six weeks tops, was all it took.

“Thankfully, our friends at the church and the library were incredibly accommodating,” said Arlt. “The community helps the school, and the school helps the community.”

The Return

In the end, Dr. Arlt was right. Plainview Public Schools welcomed all students back on August 15.

The first day of school was filled with the usual sights and sounds, but the triumphant race against time bumped the excitement level up a notch at the elementary school.

“Oh, I think they were overjoyed to be here,” Hodson said of staff and students. “There might have been a little anxiety with moving students from their normal space into different locations, but the kids just love being together. They want to be with their friends, and the extra little exercise they get throughout the day walking over to the library or the church has been a fun adventure for them.”

From a wide lens, what Plainview pulled off is remarkable. When you zoom in, though, it’s downright amazing. Put yourself in the shoes of a teacher suddenly displaced a month before class. Think of all the little details. The book stacks and bulletin boards and hundreds of other intricacies that make an elementary school classroom magical.

“Through Jen’s leadership, and all of the help we received, they made easy work of it,” said Arlt. “It’s so manageable to get through something like that and to stay positive when you’ve got a level of collegiality and people who care about one another like we do here.”

Arlt knows Plainview isn’t an outlier. Of Nebraska’s 244 school districts, he knows that many would say the same, and that makes him proud. Still, there’s something undeniably special about this place. Hodson, who taught in the district for 17 years before becoming a principal in 2020, feels it, too.

“Everybody is just all about each other,” she said. “We all care about each other. So whether it was our building, the high school building, a church or another community business affected, I don’t think our response would be any different. Everybody would just want to lend a helping hand.”

There’s many twists and turns in the 180-day journey of a school year. After maneuvering around a massive obstacle just to reach the starting line, Plainview is off and running.

“In a small town, you hope it’s a rare occurrence when you have to come to the rescue of one another, because that means there’s some out-of-the-ordinary circumstance you probably prefer didn’t exist,” said Arlt. “This would be one of those cases, but it does give us an opportunity to strengthen our relationship and to come together to set a good example for our stakeholders that we are dependent on one another, we support one another, and we thrive together when we do that.”

In Plainview, they’re moving forward. 

It’s the only direction they know.