Educators and students returned to a very changed landscape in many Long Island and New York City schools after Superstorm Sandy — ripped-off roofs, waterlogged gymnasiums and classrooms, buildings destroyed and lost books and school supplies.
The resilience of students, educators and parents was tested as they struggled to adjust to a new normal after the late October storm. In-service and retiree members and their locals and chapters across the state are answering the call to help,donating books, backpacks and other critical supplies. And school psychologists, social workers and nurses have been instrumental in helping students adjust to life post-Sandy. In the Oceanside School District, for instance, district health care professionals brought in guest speakers, and encouraged younger students to write letters to Sandy to help them cope.
"An important part of helping kids adjust is the caring that goes on in the schools — particularly for kids who may be living with 12 or 15 people at home, not living in their own home, or having a long commute into school," said Riche Roschelle, president of the Oceanside Federation of Teachers. School-related professionals also played important roles, helping to get materials moved to usable buildings, clearing debris, and in many cases, working tirelessly to get schools up and running as quickly as possible. Oceanside combined an entire school, Elementary School 8, with another building, said Roschelle, a tremendous undertaking by teachers and building and grounds professionals.
"The devastation caused by Sandy is still being felt by many New Yorkers," said Lee Cutler, NYSUT secretary-treasurer, who oversees the Disaster Relief Fund along with Vice President Kathleen Donahue and three trustees. "Thousands of NYSUT members are struggling to put their lives back together."
Among those hardest hit on Long Island were the Island Park and Long Beach school districts in Nassau County. Both faced building closures and the relocation of hundreds of students. Other severely impacted Long Island districts include East Rockaway, East Meadow, Fire Island and Kings Park. Many schools and colleges in Orange, Rockland and Westchester counties closed three to five days, primarily because of power outages and downed trees.
Three of Long Beach's seven school buildings were damaged by the flood, said Steve Freeman, president of the Long Beach Classroom Teachers Association. The pre-K building is beyond repair and slated for demolition; West Elementary School has no anticipated re-opening date; Long Beach Middle School and Lido Elementary School reopened partially in December.
"When we first reopened, we had about 1,200 middle and high school students in the high school, and about 800 students each in our two usable elementary schools," said Freeman. The district closed for 10 days following the storm.
Roughly 80 percent of students, and 95 percent of faculty, were able to return to school. Of the 1,100 members represented by Long Beach's educator and SRP locals, about 600 live in the hard-hit Long Beach and Island Park communities.
"The majority lost their homes to water damage," Freeman said. "They also lost vehicles to salt water."
Educators returned to classrooms stripped of supplies, including manipulatives, books, rugs and other teaching materials. "The enormity of the situation is hard to comprehend," said Freeman.
The Island Park School District lost one of its two school buildings to flooding — a particularly tough blow for the small K-8 district. All of Island Park's nearly 730 students now attend the Lincoln Orens Middle School — a tight fit, and a situation not likely to change until the Francis X. Hegarty Elementary School reopens this spring.
Teachers and students are doubled up in classrooms, and walls are coming down between administrative offices and the teachers' lunchroom to repurpose all usable space.
"We had 2 to 3 feet of water on the elementary school's first floor, flooding classrooms, the lunchroom and the gym," said Pat Collins, Island Park TA president. "All the electrical and boiler systems in the basement are shot."
The district lost 12 instructional days, nearly $24,000 in library books and $86,000 in musical instruments.
The district also struggled to provide free school breakfast and lunch for all district students until the holiday break. "We still have many homes in our community without electricity, and residents living in hotels and trailers," said Collins.
Leo F. Giblyn School, one of the Freeport district's five elementary schools, reopened in December after being flooded with about 8 inches of water. Giblyn's educators and students had to be relocated to its remaining elementary school buildings while repairs were made.
"Every teacher found some kind of space to work in, for instance two classrooms were housed in a gym," said Stuart Napear, Freeport TA president. "Everyone opened up their schools as best they could."
A special challenge for Giblyn teachers was trying to plan ahead for lessons. "Many lost a lot of teaching materials, especially those on the first floor, and have been working with borrowed materials," said Napear.
Between water damage and power loss, Freeport missed seven school days. To compensate for lost instructional time, the Long Beach, Island Park and Freeport districts are taking just President's Day as February break. Some districts are adding days to the school calendar or shortening spring break.
New York City
Most New York City students returned to school after missing five days, even though many school buildings lacked heat. Michael Mulgrew, United Federation of Teachers president, called on members "to stay focused on what matters most: seeing that our students are safe and that their needs are met."
Fifty-seven schools with severe flooding or structural damage; 29 buildings without power; and eight schools serving as evacuee shelters remain closed to students.
Roughly 38,000 students and staff were relocated within days of the storm, prompting city officials to create new bus routes, move equipment and books and negotiate space-sharing arrangements. Mulgrew estimated that 40 to 45 of the school buildings with structural damage — most of them in the hardest-hit areas of Coney Island, the Rockaways and Midland Beach in Staten Island — could be shuttered for months.
And many UFT members are still displaced. According to information from the UFT's Urgent Assistance Forms and its hurricane hotline, more than 600 educators are homeless due to the storm.
"The men and women impacted by this horrific storm are our union sisters and brothers," said NYSUT's Donahue. "Your contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund are needed so we can help them rebuild their lives."
As the 2013 legislative session ramps up, NYSUT will advocate to ensure that school districts are included in any storm-related supplemental funding.