Schools Open to Relieved Families and Challenges

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Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott on post-storm re-opening plans

Most of the city's 1.1 million students will return to school today after a week off from Storm Sandy. But there are some school buildings and neighborhoods too damaged to open. City officials are scrambling to get as many students back in their assigned schools by Wednesday and find alternative sights for the others.

As of Sunday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said 57 schools were so damaged that they must be relocated. And eight buildings, that house 16 schools, are still being used as shelters for people displaced by the storm.

The best place for the latest information on the schools remains the Department of Education website but parents and teachers have complained of contradictory messages and confusion.

“It is complex and people are going to make mistakes, and people are going to get misinformed,” the mayor said. “We know that, but it’s better to have another day of school, get most kids to school, find out where we need more resources, and then we’ll have Tuesday to try to adjust.”

All schools are closed Tuesday for Election Day. That gives the city another day to prepare the still-closed schools for a Wednesday opening. The challenges are daunting. For example, here's what the Times reported from a Sunday visit to the High School of Graphic Communication Arts which housed evacuees from Bellevue Hospital Center:

Cots lined the hallways, and toilets were limited or clogged, so some evacuees went to the bathroom on the floor. Volunteers, gagging at air made more fetid by unwashed bodies, took to wearing masks. “We gave them wipes,” a volunteer said, “but there’s only so much you can do with wipes.”

Custodians spent Sunday scrubbing and mopping, preparing this makeshift storm shelter in Hell’s Kitchen, which at one point housed some 1,000 displaced men, women and children, for the return to its day job — as the High School of Graphic Communication Arts.

The rush to sanitize the school was just one piece of the sprawling, shifting logistical puzzle, some would say nightmare, as the city’s 1.1 million public school students faced an educational landscape drastically altered by Hurricane Sandy.

SchoolBook was in Brighton Beach Monday morning for the re-opening of P.S. 100 The Coney Island School. Many parents said they spent the week without power and without heat. Some went to stay in other neighborhoods but many stayed.

Below you can hear Beth Fertig on The Brian Lehrer Show share her reporting from P.S. 100.

Reporter Beth Fertig on school opening after a week-long shutdown

P.S. 100 staff members hugged each other as they arrived for work early Monday. The school of more than 700 students is one of very few in the neighborhood that was able to open, because so many others were too badly damaged.

Some teachers had experienced the storm first hand. Music teacher Mary Ann Spinner had tears in her eyes. She lives on Staten Island and had to stay at her mother's in Dyker Heights, after losing power for three nights. She said her home was okay but neighbors' houses were damaged by trees.

Principal Katherine Moloney said all but three of her 70 teachers had come to work.

"The staff has been phenomenal," she said, while greeting parents and children during breakfast in the cafeteria. "I was very worried because just about half our staff is coming from Staten Island, Long Island and New Jersey. Some of the hardest hit areas."

Parent coordinator Cristina Tozzi was serving coffee for parents, encouraging them to stay inside to warm up. Many families live in the surrounding Warbasse and Trump apartment buildings which are still without power or heat.

Elizabeth Zhuravlev and her 5-year-old son Max warming up at P.S. 100 in Brighton Beach.

Debbie Storman, who still doesn't have power, said she's happy the school is open. "That's why we're still here, she said, explaining that she considered moving to another state temporarily because she can't find a hotel and doesn't want to stay in a shelter with her three boys. Her youngest son is a student at P.S. 100 and her oldest went back to Lincoln High School. But the school for her 12-year-old son Rajesh is still closed.

One parent dropping off a young boy huddled with staffers while she cried. As she left the boy cried too, and the staffers tried to comfort him as they led him to class.

Moloney said she would have the students meet in the auditorium to talk about the storm and "alleviate some fears."

"Children have to talk it out. They have to know that this is just a natural disaster. It's not something they have to fear all the time and there's always someone here for them. Their parents, their teachers, their school," she said.

She said she's talking to colleagues from other elementary schools who are being relocated to other buildings to see if they need anything. Those in junior high school buildings, for example, may not have enough grade-appropriate material.

P.S. 100 also was enrolling children who had evacuated to Coney Island or Brighton Beach from other parts of the city. A mother named Nataly, who didn't want to give her full name, sat in the office with her six-year-old daughter. They had been flooded out of their home in Belle Harbor, Queens, and were staying with family nearby. The daughter was enrolled within a few minutes and started her school day with a new book bag and notebooks provided by Principal Moloney.