Back to School, Bundled Up, but With Lingering Questions
By CARA BUCKLEY
Cots lined the hallways, and toilets were limited or clogged, so some evacuees went to the bathroom on the floor. Volunteers, gagging at air made more fetid by unwashed bodies, took to wearing masks. “We gave them wipes,” a volunteer said, “but there’s only so much you can do with wipes.”
Custodians spent Sunday scrubbing and mopping, preparing this makeshift storm shelter in Hell’s Kitchen, which at one point housed some 1,000 displaced men, women and children, for the return to its day job — as the High School of Graphic Communication Arts.
The rush to sanitize the school was just one piece of the sprawling, shifting logistical puzzle, some would say nightmare, as the city’s 1.1 million public school students faced an educational landscape drastically altered by Hurricane Sandy. The city said that 57 schools were too damaged to reopen, which meant the city had to find new places for their 34,000 students. Eight buildings that normally house 24,000 students currently serve as shelters, and are set to reopen on Wednesday, a target several educators believed unfeasible. It was still unclear on Sunday whether students and teachers would be sharing their buildings with people now using them for shelter. (Graphic Communication Arts housed people evacuated from Bellevue Hospital Center.)
As of Sunday afternoon, 29 schools remained without power, with parents, teachers and students — many of them storm victims themselves — unsure when classes might resume, though the Department of Education said they were hoping to open Wednesday. Some of those that will reopen Monday might not have heat; the mayor advised that students wear extra sweaters.
The city Education Department was updating its schools Web site Sunday with the latest information and placing full-page advertisements in some newspapers. The mayor said the city made 1.1 million robocalls to parents over the weekend, telling them the status of their schools, though many families received follow-up calls with different information as situations changed by the hour.
“It is complex and people are going to make mistakes, and people are going to get misinformed,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news conference Sunday. Noting that schools would be closed, as planned, for Election Day, he added: “We know that, but it’s better to have another day of school, get most kids to school, find out where we need more resources, and then we’ll have Tuesday to try to adjust.”
Around 300 of New Jersey’s 589 school districts were to remain closed on Monday, said Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department. In a message Friday, John Bulina, president of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said it was possible some schools would “be unusable as educational facilities for quite some time.”
Some officials said they hoped to open schools by Wednesday, but cautioned against too much optimism. “Not all roads are safe for travel, student walkers, pickups and buses,” said an online note from Anthony Cacciola, the superintendent of the West Babylon school district, one of several on Long Island that were to be closed Monday. “The gas crisis,” he said, “has added another layer of great concern for staff travel and bus fuel.”
Students at the 57 New York City schools that cannot reopen will not relocate to their new schools until Wednesday. Sixteen schools in the eight buildings that have doubled as shelters were supposed to reopen Monday, but that date got bumped back two days after Department of Education officials toured the sites.
At Susan E. Wagner High School on Staten Island on Sunday, row upon row of cots made the gym look more like a Civil War field hospital than a high school. Piles of clothes and canned goods competed for space in the cafeteria with evacuees eating and milling about. Several dozen dogs, cats and birds — evacuees themselves — had taken up residence in the basement.
Because Staten Island was so brutally hit by Hurricane Sandy, it was not clear where all of the people housed in Wagner High School, which has 3,400 students, would go: many no longer had homes to return to.
Dennis M. Walcott, the New York City schools chancellor, said the city was working with the Department of Homeless Services to ensure safe reopenings on Wednesday. But some staff members at schools being used as shelters were skeptical.
“Everyone was kind of shocked to think they’d go through with this,” said Serge Avery, a social science teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the eight buildings. “It just did not seem feasible logistically.”
Ahmed Abdelqader, Brooklyn Tech’s senior class president, said many students were eager to return to class, especially seniors preparing for college admission, but, he said, “A lot of people were questioning whether they’d be safe at school.”
One teacher visiting Graphic Communications Arts, on West 49th Street, said it would be impossible for the site to be cleaned up in time. Evacuees and homeless men filled six floors, the teacher said and, unlike students, entered the building without being searched. “It had become a homeless shelter,” the teacher said. “The custodial staff would need an entire week.”
Some schools too damaged to open to students continued to serve multiple purposes. On Sunday, donations of clothes, shoes, nonperishable food, blankets and toys piled up at George L. Egbert Intermediate School, in Midland Beach on Staten Island. Adrienne Stallone, the principal, said floodwaters had bent the school’s doors, eaten away some walls and pushed others into different rooms. On Sunday, the school’s boiler was still under five feet of salt water in the basement.
The school has 1,000 students in grades six through eight who, starting Wednesday, will be taken to New Dorp High School for at least a week. Meanwhile, in Egbert’s gymnasium, gray voting machines lined one wall, draped with clear plastic tarps — the school was still scheduled to serve as a voting site on Tuesday, with the help of a generator, lights and heating tents.
“The transformer across the street is still underwater, and Con Ed says they can’t think of turning the power on until that’s dry,” Ms. Stallone said.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, estimated that 40 to 45 schools were most likely too damaged to reopen by the end of the school year, most of them in the hardest hit neighborhoods — Coney Island, the Rockaways and Midland Beach. “It’s going to be somewhat chaotic in these hard hit areas,” he said, “There are families and children who haven’t had heat or hot food for days. There are going to be problems.”
Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the principals’ union, said principals were “very sympathetic” and committed to streamlining the integration of dislocated schools. And Marina Vinitskaya, the principal of the It Takes a Village Academy, which shares the old Samuel J. Tilden High School building in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, with two other schools, is expecting some 750 middle school students on Wednesday. The four principals would meet Monday, she said, to discuss the details. “We will be using every space that will be available and put our schools on a different schedule to make this happen.”
Guidance staff members at many schools were preparing counseling centers to tend to the psychological needs of students who might have been living without power or heat, or who had lost their homes.
The last time the city’s school system was so broadly disrupted was after the Sept. 11 attack. But Harold O. Levy, who led the Education Department then, said the terrorist attack left a broader psychological wound on students, with the logistics of finding classrooms for dislocated students being a secondary concern. “It’s unfortunate, it’s disruptive, and it’s particularly a concern within the context of our really awful truancy problems in this country,” Mr. Levy said, of the effects of school days lost to Hurricane Sandy, “But seen in this perspective it’s manageable.”
M. Carole Schafenberg, the principal at Public School 76 in Queens, is expecting up to 200 students from Public School 78, which cannot reopen because of water damage. Ms. Schafenberg said her school was underutilized anyway, and that now every empty classroom would be filled. She was most concerned however with busing problems — she heard that much of the bus company’s fleet that served her school was ruined, and worried about the lack of gas. She also wondered how to reach displaced children who might have moved in with other family members — should they instead enroll in the nearest school? “I don’t think anybody has found that out,” she said.