Storm-Ravaged Districts Face Tough Recovery
David Weiss, the superintendent in Long Beach, N.Y., wrestled with a slew of considerations last week as he weighed when to restart school, nine days after Hurricane Sandy wrecked his community.
Just one of seven buildings had most of the essentials: electricity, heat, working fire alarms, sewage, and food. If Nassau County authorities ruled the water safe, the building could open. But would it work to use a single school for all 4,000 K-12 students by cycling them through in grade-level clusters a few hours at a time?
Did it make sense to reopen when another storm was barreling straight for Long Island and was predicted to dump snow and bring more surge? And, with many students and staff members lacking transportation—and most of the bus fleet out of action—would anyone be able to get there?
District administrators and school leaders in the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut faced the same decisions about restarting school last week as flooded buildings, widespread power outages, disabled communications systems, and other immediate ravages of the superstorm that struck Oct. 29 slowly gave way to the longer-term challenges of recovery. In some districts—including the 1.1 million-student New York City system—many buildings that could open had no heat. And to get many students back into school after more than a week off, district leaders were relocating those whose buildings remained too damaged or unsafe to occupy.
As of late last week, roughly 82 percent of the more than 580 school districts in New Jersey were able to open, though some remained closed for previously scheduled days off. In hard-hit New York state, openings in areas outside of New York City—especially on Long Island—have been more limited.
“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened in our community, and it feels overwhelming in certain moments,” Mr. Weiss said. “But you’ve got to prioritize and work, piece by piece, to bring the system back online.”
Long Road to Recovery
Several national education groups are offering help to schools and educators affected by Hurricane Sandy.
• The American Association of School Administrators has an online exchange where its members can view the needs of affected school districts and make contributions. It is also providing small grants to help district leaders meet the urgent health, mental-health, education, and social-service needs of students.
• The American Federation of Teachers has set up a disaster-relief fund on behalf of its members and has given money to other charitable organizations that are helping teachers rebuild their classrooms and providing new books to students.
• The National PTA is offering grants of up to $5,000 to local parent-teacher associations to use for repairing damage to school libraries and playgrounds and buying new books and supplies.
Reopening schools in the wake of a natural disaster is one of the most difficult challenges administrators encounter as they find themselves thrust into the role of crisis manager.
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, administrators from Alabama to Texas found themselves managing recovery and rebuilding for months, especially in New Orleans, where more than 100 school buildings stood in as much as 15 feet of water for days.
In the Northeast, the post-Sandy management responsibilities have involved drying out flooded buildings, hiring environmental experts to assess them for health and safety, repairing boilers that provide heat, supplying gasoline for school buses, and restocking food supplies to serve, in some districts, three meals a day to students.
Much of that work has been held up by the slow restoration of power and other basic services that has made one of the most fundamental functions of school leaders an enormous challenge: locating and communicating with students, families, and employees scattered to temporary housing.
“Communications and transportation are our biggest barriers,” Mr. Weiss of New York’s Long Beach schools said. “But we are determined to bring some stability to our kids and our staff who’ve been through so much. School is a part of stability.”
At the same time, school leaders have also had to attend to the physical and mental-health needs of staff members and students and their families whose lives have been upended by the storm.
Mr. Weiss said more than 65 percent of his district’s 900 employees live in Long Beach, a barrier island on the south side of Long Island.
“Many of them may have had their homes condemned or have enough damage that they can’t live in them until they are repaired,” he said. “And nearly everyone here lost their cars.”
Much of Mr. Weiss’ focus last week was on arranging for representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be at a meeting with his staff members, some of whom still needed to apply for financial assistance, and to provide social workers and psychologists for those who needed mental-health support.
“What they are up against is daunting,” said Charles A. Szuberla Jr., the assistant commissioner for school operations in the New York state education department, who visited several hard-hit districts on Long Island. He said that roughly 170 schools statewide were flooded by storm surge, and that while a few had reopened, many would stay closed for weeks.
“But my sense from seeing the decisions that our superintendents are making is that the things that make them good educational leaders are making them good community leaders and serving them well in an event like this storm,” Mr. Szuberla said.
In the 700-student Island Park, N.Y., district on the north side of Long Island, for example, the superintendent and staff members were going door to door to check on students and their families, alert them to an upcoming meeting, and inform them when classes would resume, Mr. Szuberla said.
Meeting Basic Needs
In Commack, N.Y., in central Long Island, district officials were providing access to heated buildings to families in need of warmth, hot water for showers, and electricity for charging phones and other electronic devices, said John Kelly, a psychologist in the 8,700-student district. Those services would continue to be available even after school resumed late last week, Superintendent Donald James said in a message on the district’s website.
Preparing to meet the emotional and psychological needs of students and staff members became a priority for the district last week as some schools geared up to reopen Nov. 7, Mr. Kelly said. Those efforts will be focused on classrooms, with teachers and other staff members trained to acknowledge that students’ feelings of anxiety and distress caused by the storm are entirely normal.
For most children, typical reactions may include mild anxiety and difficulty sleeping, eating, or concentrating, Mr. Kelly said, and educators will be providing reassurance that such symptoms are to be expected.
“When people feel that way, they worry, ‘Am I OK?’ ” he said. “Yes. It’s very normal. Just saying that can really help kids cope with these kinds of events.”
For a small percentage of children, reactions will be stronger, Mr. Kelly said. Schools should work closely with students’ families to determine their needs and, if a student’s reaction persists, collaborate with community-based social-service and mental-health agencies, he said. Minimizing children’s exposure to news media coverage about the disaster, providing personal contact such as hugs, and rebuilding a routine are also important, he said.
Mr. Weiss, the Long Beach superintendent, said he has been frustrated by his inability to provide definitive information on reopening schools. The district’s central office and early-childhood center will be condemned, he said, and he and his team face the arduous task of restoring critical student files and financial information. The transportation depot flooded with eight feet of water, forcing the transportation staff to turn a mostly dry fleet of school buses into temporary offices.
As of late last week, the date for when Long Beach could, and should, reopen schools remained a moving target. After getting word that the water still had not been deemed safe, Mr. Weiss gave up on plans to open the one relatively unscathed building last week.
He and his staff postponed the opening date to Nov. 13, with the hope that three buildings would be ready and safe for students and staff members to occupy. All secondary students would share the two upper floors of the high school, while the elementary students would be split between two other buildings. It wouldn’t be until after Thanksgiving, at least, that three additional schools could be back in use, and one elementary school would have to remain out of use until early January.
One final piece of the puzzle before any school can open, Mr. Weiss said, is transportation. For the few people whose cars weren’t ruined in the storm, finding gas has remained difficult; for most school buses, access to compressed natural gas was the issue.
“We’re setting up central pickup locations, and we’ll be running shuttles for students and our staff members,” he said.“It’s not ideal, but we’ll make it work.”
Vol. 32, Issue 12, Pages 1, 16Published in Print: November 14, 2012, as Post-Sandy, Schools Claw Back