School & District Management

Last N.Y.C. Schools Reopening Near Attack Site

By Catherine Gewertz — February 06, 2002 5 min read
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The last five of a group of New York City schools closed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack are reopening, one by one, in a tumble of emotions ranging from anger to jubilation.

Police officers were posted outside the High School for Leadership and Public Service Jan. 30 as it reopened. The building was still covered in scaffolding, but staff members had brightened the exterior with banners and bunches of red, white, and blue balloons to welcome students back.

“I’m happy to be back, but it’s still kind of scary,” said Mara Green, a 14-year-old freshman at the school, where students have a clear view of the devastated World Trade Center site from their cafeteria. “Especially seeing the site was kind of scary. And having all the cops around is kind of weird.”

Ebony Boyd, 17, a junior, said she was thrilled to be back. “I didn’t have to worry about crowded hallways,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

The High School for Economics and Finance, located next door, was scheduled to reopen the same day, but the New York board of education delayed that reopening until later this month after a thick layer of dust was found in some areas of the school. Two elementary schools, PS 150 and PS 234, were expected to reopen Feb. 4 and a third, PS 89, on Feb. 28.

Some two dozen schools in Lower Manhattan had been closed immediately after two hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center towers, but most reopened within a week. Eight schools closest to the site, however, were shuttered for weeks or months as damage was repaired, rooms cleaned, and environmental safety assessed. Three reopened in the past few months.

Health Concerns

Now the last five are opening their doors again, bringing back students who in some cases have been squeezed into shared arrangements with other schools or have attended classes in unoccupied city buildings.

As the reopening dates for the five schools drew near, some parents anticipated the return joyfully, as a much-needed resumption of normal life. Others seemed simply resigned, shadowed by what they view as questions about environmental safety. Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy, after monitoring air quality at the schools, has declared them safe.

Parental worry spilled over into conflict at PS 89, which is two blocks from the World Trade Center site and had been used as a command center for agencies responding to the disaster. A majority of PS 89 parents were so worried about air quality in and around the school, and about the potential psychological impact on their children of returning, that they authorized their PTA to wage a legal battle against the district. Through negotiation, they secured a delay from the original Feb. 4 return date to Feb. 28.

Even with that delay, some parents of PS 89 students remain unhappy. They cite air-quality tests conducted by a private company hired by the board of education, which have intermittently shown particulate matter in the air at levels that exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. They worry about the health risks of trucks carting waste from the trade center site past their school.

“Why send children back to a school if there is any doubt of their health when they have a wonderful place to be?” said Amie Gross, who has two children at PS 89. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Ninfa Segarra, the president of the board of education, submitted an affidavit to the court in support of the PS 89 parents who wanted to delay the reopening, saying that Mr. Levy’s return order represented “a classic example of the bureaucracy not being responsive to parents.”

Parents at other nearby schools, as well, supported the PS 89 parents. Marilena Christodoulou, the president of the PTA at Stuyvesant High School, which returned to its building Oct. 9, said 11 students have left the school after suffering rashes, nosebleeds, watery eyes, and respiratory illnesses. Dozens more, including her own son, have complained to her about similar ailments, Ms. Christodoulou said.

Mark Bodenheimer, who taught math at Stuyvesant High for 29 years, transferred to Bronx High School of Science when he started suffering from headaches, congestion, a sore throat, and watery eyes within days of returning to Stuyvesant. “I just had a violent reaction to the environment there,” he said. “It certainly seemed to me that there was a health risk.”

‘Time to Go Back’

School system officials insist, though, that measurements of the levels of dust, toxins, and other substances show the buildings are safe enough to warrant students’ return.

“There is no way we would ever consider letting kids go back to school in unsafe conditions,” said board spokesman Kevin B. Ortiz. “The chancellor’s stance is that it’s time to go back.”

Some parents couldn’t agree more.

“This community has been struggling desperately to come back” from Sept. 11, said Stacey Sosa, who has two children at PS 89. “The only way we can do that is if school reopens. It’s our epicenter, where we congregate. The whole neighborhood has been dead since the school has been closed. It’s time to move on now.”

Ms. Sosa, who lives above the school, in the same building, said she is not worried about the air quality in the area. “We’re out all the time, on our rollerblades and scooters, at the park,” she said. “It’s fine.”

At PS 150, seven blocks from the attack site, most parents feel ready for their children to return, despite a spike in particulate levels in the air last month, said Deborah Petti, co-chair of the Parent-Teacher-Student Association. “I’m not feeling I’m sending my kids to an unsafe site,” said Ms. Petti, who has two children at the school.

At PS 234, which is two blocks from the trade center site and was used as an operations center, a small group of parents opposes returning to school, but most are ready to do so, said PTA president George Olsen. The school’s well-organized efforts to provide counseling to parents, students, and staff members helped the community feel ready to return, he said. Environmental tests have shown raised levels of particulate matter in the air, but no toxins, he said.

Nonetheless, parents vary in their comfort levels about returning their children to the site. Even those willing to do so harbor fears about whether there are additional undetected substances in the air that could harm the students, and whether combinations of substances that alone are harmless might affect them as well.

“There is this fear out there, ‘what if?’” Mr. Olsen said. “We have our most feared catastrophe, and our most treasured thing: our children. Everyone’s nervous about going back, including my wife. But I think it will be OK.”

Staff Writer Jessica L. Sandham contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Last N.Y.C. Schools Reopening Near Attack Site


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