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Chaos Reigns as Schools Open 11 Days Late in New York City

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NEW YORK--William UbiÄnas's car jerks to a halt in front of Junior High School 22, one of 23 schools here in Manhattan's Community School District 1.

It is Monday around 8 A.M. on the Lower East Side, and Superintendent UbiÄnas, cellular phone in hand, has just made a string of calls about contingency plans for the junior high school and an elementary school that are closed due to crumbling asbestos in the buildings.

Leaving his car's hazard lights flashing, Mr. UbiÄnas dashes through the school's front gates and onto a huge blacktop jammed with students, parents, and teachers waiting for instructions.

The school's security staff and a police officer hover at the edges of the schoolyard, and a television cameraman trails a reporter and some photographers as they bob through the crowd.

Welcome to the first day of classes in the nation's largest school system, with more than 100 of the city's 1,069 school buildings still shut down for an emergency asbestos cleanup.

An August report by the district's special commissioner of investigation revealed that many previous asbestos inspections of schools were conducted improperly, perhaps even fraudulently. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1993, and related article, page 1.)

After a massive re-inspection and abatement effort pushed back the new school year by 11 days to Sept. 20, children were returning to the most chaotic scene since 1968, when a bitter teachers' strike brought the system to a halt.

Last week, the city's school-construction authority--which has overseen the cleanup since last month--advised that some 20 schools would stay closed until further notice.

But local school boards and community task forces around the city also limited access to hundreds of other classrooms and some buildings.

And District 12 in the Bronx and District 19 in Brooklyn, despite the pleas of Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines and the central board of education, refused to open altogether.

After the confusion subsided on the second day of school, those districts had reopened and more than half of the schools that had been shut down citywide the first day were operating.

The Crowd Waits

Standing on an elevated walkway high above the schoolyard, Mr. UbiÄnas speaks to the crowd over a microphone. Because more than 85 percent of the district's students are Hispanic, he alternates between Spanish and English.

"It may be a week, it may be two weeks'' before the school opens, he says. "You have to trust us that we're trying to keep the building safe.''

Below the walkway, Evelyn Rosetti, the superintendent's assistant, surveys the crowd. Only 300 to 400 of the school's 600 students showed up today, she says.

Although the district posted notices at every school and set up four bilingual hot lines, she points out, conflicting or late-breaking news reports probably made it difficult for parents to determine where to send their children.

And information lines set up by the central board were so overloaded that telephone service into the 718 area code was reportedly disrupted.

Overhead, another administrator has taken the microphone and is beginning to read the names of every student at J.H.S. 22. The crowd splits into groups as students are assigned to other schools in the district.

Parents, who were urged by Chancellor Cortines to accompany their children to school today, look bewildered, tired, and anxious.

Parents Angry and Confused

Over at Public School 61, the playground also doubles as a waiting room for parents, children, and staff members.

"I think parents are confused or concerned that the problem is not solved,'' says Yoland Hadlock, a bilingual 1st-grade teacher at the elementary school, which is also closed.

District 1 hoped to open the school, but "asbestos workers in white suits were still carrying out materials on Sunday,'' says Superintendent UbiÄnas, and he thought it would be unfair to the community to use the school even though it had been deemed safe.

Ms. Hadlock estimates that 60 percent of P.S. 61's 300 students have not arrived.

Linda Morales waits quietly with her son next to a high chain-link fence beside the school. Buses are expected to arrive soon, though some students will walk down the street with their parents and teachers to another school with available space.

"There are some parents who are leaving their kids at home, but I'm going to the school with him,'' says Ms. Morales.

"When I'm at work, I'd have to worry about how he's going to be,'' she adds. "It's very, very unnerving.''

Parent activists around the city are angry about how the asbestos situation was handled. They say they felt deceived, since the central board apparently knew that asbestos tests conducted in the schools in 1986 were incomplete.

And, they say, the central board and the construction authority failed to keep parents informed of the status of the community schools undergoing inspections and abatement during round-the-clock operations.

Fatma Cole, an activist whose children attend schools in District 10 in the Bronx, says she "still does not know if their schools were tested and safe.''

At one of the schools, a classroom that was sealed off by a custodian was later reopened by an administrator searching for more space for the students, she says.

"He said it was safe, but the room still has big holes in it,'' Ms. Cole adds.

"The bottom-line problem is that the overall maintenance conditions in some of the schools are unbelievably bad,'' says Jon Moscow, the executive director of the Parents Coalition for Education.

"Even if you leave aside asbestos, what you're really confronting is that nobody gives a damn,'' he says.

Construction Agency Faulted

After they make their rounds through P.S. 20's classrooms, Principal Leonard Golubchick and Mr. UbiÄnas talk about the construction authority's role in the crisis. They blame the agency for much of the confusion in recent weeks.

Reports declaring schools asbestosfree were still arriving the day before school started, says the superintendent. "The time we spent running around custodians, running around people ... was a major, major problem,'' he sighs.

In a storage room on the first floor of the school, Mr. Golubchick points to a small mass of white tape near the ceiling. P.S. 20 got off easy, with only a few areas abated, he says.

A security officer tells the principal that students from J.H.S. 22--who are there to attend classes in the teachers' lounge and other available space--are roaming the corridors.

At J.H.S. 60, Mr. UbiÄnas's next stop, the second floor hallways are dark and deserted. Most of the classrooms are marked with the ubiquitous sign, "Do Not Enter, This Room Closed Until Further Notice.''

A television reporter begins an interview with the superintendent, and bright lights briefly illuminate the dim corridor.

"The food wasn't delivered at one of the schools, and at J.H.S. 22 not all of the kids were there,'' Mr. UbiÄnas says, enumerating today's setbacks. "There has been a little chaos, but this is not as chaotic as I expected.''

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