Teachers, Students and Evacuees Co-Exist as Schools Set to Resume

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Teachers were back in school Friday, preparing for Monday’s reopening.  But eight public schools are still doing double duty as shelters for those displaced by flooding from Sandy. At Brooklyn Tech, the borough's most sought after public high school, students will share their building with the elderly and people with mental and physical disabilities. Some are apprehensive.

On Friday, Brooklyn Tech was housing about 400 people from nursing homes and homes for people with mental and physical disabilities.

They were joined by 200 of Brooklyn Tech’s 250 teachers, who trekked to school to meet with their principal. Even the school’s athletic director, who lost his house this week to the fire in Breezy Point, showed up. Many were eager to hear how the building will function Monday with hundreds of elderly and disabled evacuees plus 5,500 students.

“It’s a very crowded school so it’s hard to imagine,” Social Studies teacher Serge Avery said. “You know, the question is how well schools and hospitals can function together.”

Outside the entrance to the school’s main hall and huge auditorium – said to be the largest in Brooklyn – a dozen evacuees smoked cigarettes and chatted with friends from facilities in Far Rockaway and Coney Island. A few were talking to themselves. Cynthia Shield was among many to explain they did not evacuate before the storm and were told to stay put.

Looking outside the window, she said she saw water that was waste high.

But she said she wasn't scared. The staff at Surf Manor Adult Home in Coney Island stayed with them.

“They brought us good food to our rooms, they gave us cereal for breakfast. They treated us good,” said Shield.

Down the bock, Edward Ezer says he wasn't scared either, despite the speed with which water was rushing outside his Far Rockaway home. "I wasn't frightened because I was in Israel in the army during the October war," he said. Ezer has lived in New York facing the ocean for 25 years at the Chai Home for Adults for people with physical or mental disabilities.

"As far as I know," he said, "my last diagnosis was chronic paranoia and schizophrenia. And I don't argue with it."

It's unclear when evacuees will return to their homes. With Brooklyn Tech students headed back Monday, the Department of Homeless Services is trying to reduce its footprint at the school. The population at the shelter is already half what it was earlier in the week. On Friday, returning teachers were restricted to the 5th and 6th floors of the nine-story building. But school administrators hope they'll have much more space come Monday.

So does Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond. "It's very hard to predict," he said Friday afternoon, "I mean there and active search that's going on now to find out if there are spaces available for them."

Up on Brooklyn Tech's 7th floor, rows of blue cots lined the lunchroom and dozens of frail evacuees tried to make themselves comfortable. One man called for medication. In a wheel chair, Alicia Brown said she wasn't mad that no one evacuated her from Lawrence Nursing Care Center in Far Rockaway before the storm.

"How could they do that?" she asked. "Who wants to be out there in the middle of the storm? I didn't!"

Brown's legs were both amputated above the knee because of sugar, she said. Diabetes. Attending to her and others in the cafeteria were a combination of city staff, aid workers, volunteers and employees of the nursing homes the evacuees came from.

But, after emerging from Brooklyn Tech's staff meeting, U.S. History teacher Adam Stevens said he was as concerned about how evacuees were faring as he was about students coming back to share space with them.

"There just doesn’t seem to be the staff on hand to really take care of them and what they need," he said.

Adams had gone up to the college office on the 7th floor to print out a transcript for a student’s early admission application and found, on the floor in the hallway, evidence that nursing home evacuees weren’t making it all the way to the bathroom from the cafeteria

"They’re unable to contain their waste," he said, "I’m not sure they have bathroom facilities to properly care for them."

Social studies teacher Avery was pessimistic about the return to school next week. “The principal really seemed to be at a loss for words to describe how this would work Monday," he said, "I don’t think there’s anybody in the building who thinks school and the facility can operate together."

Brooklyn Tech’s Senior Class President, Ahmed Abdelqader, also came by to check out the scene. He said his classmates have been talking on social media about the shelter — with mixed reactions.

He said some students said they didn't feel comfortable. "But really school can’t be closed for any more,” he said. "Losing out on one week is almost horrific. We have to catch up on a lot of our classes. You gotta do what you gotta do."

Come Monday, Homeless Services Commissioner Diamond says students, teachers, evacuees and emergency aid workers will share the building.

"We have enough staff on site — or we will on Monday when school starts — that we are confident we can coexist with the schools without interfering," he said.

Then on Tuesday, voters will get into the mix. Brooklyn Tech is also a polling site for the presidential election.