In Stormy Times, Schools Don't Close

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Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of essays about the response of an individual school community to the storm known as Sandy. You can see one from the principal of Scholars' Academy here , one from the principal of P-Tech here, and another from a teacher at Waterside Children's Studio here. Please share your stories and impressions of the response and recovery from Sandy below.

The first bad news I received came in the form of a message sent from a student via our online grading system. She informed me that, in the event of school actually opening on Wednesday, Oct. 31, she could not attend.

Her family had to get to North Carolina where an ailing family member became gravely ill, certainly precipitated by the inclement weather of Sandy, the superstorm that hit the East Coast with the fury of a hurricane and the velocity of a Nor’easter. The student asked, surely at the behest of her parents, for any work she may miss during the time period, and she would hand it in upon her return.

I looked at my unit plan, thought about what the first days back would probably look like, turned to my keyboard, and typed, “That won’t be necessary. See you when you come back.”

During times of tragedy, schools become a neighborhood’s community hub, one of the few structures that serve as safety nets helping all. When officials demanded an evacuation of Zone A, neighborhoods where the hurricane would probably hit hardest, schools opened their doors. Hundreds of people without power, heat, or food flocked to schools.

Some were turned into evacuation shelters for people from the surrounding neighborhoods. These schools not only protected people, but also became places where people could find out when they’d get their utilities back, or where FEMA would station its food trucks. Shortly thereafter on Election Day, people stood in lines that stretched around the block with waiting times as long as two hours to vote in schools staffed by volunteers, many of them educators.

For the cynical bunch who cry foul over teachers’ summer vacations and religious holidays off, please understand that many of us dedicate ourselves year-round to working on our craft, a dedication that strengthened in the aftermath of the storm. When schools were closed during the hurricane, many of us already had thought about our plan of action when we returned. I called about half the students in my class, even as my own family in the Lower East Side of Manhattan still had no power or heat for an extended period of time. Many of my colleagues used Election Day as a day of service in lieu of the professional development sessions they could have had.

On the first Friday back at school before the students returned, we found out that the apartment of one of our colleagues had flooded. After a minute of discussion, we decided the money in our Sunshine Fund, sponsored by our local chapter of the United Federation of Teachers, would not be generous enough. In short order, we raised enough money to get her started on a new place to call home. Well, at least a second place to call home, the first being school. In lieu of a damaged home, this teacher, like so many of the people who walk through our school’s doors, found comfort and support in the school community.

As educators, we are charged with helping our children feel that, as wild as the world may seem, we will pull through. Parents, children, and other invested adults seek asylum in our schools because of our routines, the familiarity, and the dulcet vibrations of the students’ yells, whispers and laughter. The teachers start their classes with their usual routines. The deans remind students of the rules in the hallway as they walk to class. The principals address as many classes as possible about academics and general minutiae.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the seemingly mundane brings calm in any weather.

Turmoil always brings a high tide but as things return to a more normal rhythm my students know that I’ll be waiting for them at classroom door at 8 a.m. with a “Good morning!” and a “Do Now.”

Jose Luis Vilson teaches math to middle school students at J.H.S. 52 Inwood.