April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Many Return to School in a Landscape Altered by Hurricane Sandy

Messages requesting donations posted on the doors of John Jay High School in Brooklyn, currently an evacuation shelter for Hurricane Sandy victims.

School officials in New York and New Jersey grappled with how to get students and staff back to classrooms on Monday after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. The storm left 57 New York City schools too structurally damaged to receive students, and eight are still in use as evacuation centers. In New Jersey, some schools were open, but a full picture of the extent of the damage was still hard to come by due to power outages, said Amy Rominiecki, president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL).

The widespread damage in New Jersey prompted organizers of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) to cancel its annual meeting, slated for November 8-9 in Atlantic City, for the first time in 158 years. “Some reports are saying that schools won’t be able to move back into their buildings this year,” said Steve Baker, NJEA associate director for public relations. “Certainly the hardest-hit communities face a long and daunting process.” Baker added that though the conference will not be rescheduled, NJEA hopes to offer significant opportunities for professional development online.

Rominiecki sent an email last Thursday requesting damage reports from school librarians in the state. So far, she said, no one has responded, though schools are reopening. In the meantime, others have been reaching out to her, wanting to make contributions and help. “It’s wonderful that everyone wants to help out,” Rominiecki says, but she does not yet know who needs it.

Scenes from across New York City

New York City school librarians and staff returning to work faced a fluctuating situation in which officials scrambled to find alternate space for students whose schools are shuttered. Last week, fish from the Atlantic Ocean were swimming in the flooded cafeteria at the Lafayette Educational Campus, a large building housing five schools in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Librarian Frank Minaudo was told that the faculty and students would relocate to another facility. But when it emerged that nearby school buildings, including those in hard-hit Breezy Point, Queens, were in worse shape, plans changed. Now, Lafayette will host other displaced students.

“We’re keeping this school open with temporary heating units, even though it’s freezing,” Minaudo said on Monday, as the school principal and officials huddled nearby, figuring out how to partition the library into temporary classrooms for the extra students expected Wednesday (public schools are closed Tuesday due to the general election). Meanwhile, Minaudo, who had to turn students away from the library on Monday because of the principal’s meeting, mapped out his own triage teaching plan. “I’ll roll in with my laptop anywhere I can,” he said. “I’ll bring it to classrooms and do whatever I have to do.”

Manhattan’s PS 347, the American Sign Language and English Lower School in Manhattan, was also operating without heat or phone service, said Sara Paulson, coordinator of library services. A banner on the school’s web site yesterday morning advised children to dress warmly.

The storm also wreaked havoc on the early admissions college process, said Adam Stevens, a teacher and scholarship advisor at the Brooklyn Technical High School, currently being used as a shelter for nursing home patients and people with physical and psychological disabilities. Facing a November 1 deadline to file early application materials, many teachers could not file their student recommendations in time. Stevens said that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) was working with colleges to grant extensions to students in the hurricane zone.

Students were to return to Brooklyn Tech on Monday, with evacuees still occupying other floors of the building. But those plans were cancelled and students were told to stay home. “The principal had a meeting with us in the library this morning and informed us that the school will try to reopen on Wednesday,” a school employee said on Monday. “These are special circumstances. The evacuees are from hospitals, and we can’t displace them.”

Farther south, PS 90 in Coney Island, Brooklyn, a coastal area pounded by storm, remains closed. Eileen Makoff, the school’s library media specialist, feared both for the students and for her small school library, which she labored to re-open last year. The school had gone for many years without a library facility.

Elsewhere in the city, schools prepared to absorb extra students. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Campus building, which houses several schools in one structure, prepared for its role as a relocation site on Wednesday, said Campus Librarian Teresa Tartaglione. On Monday morning, it was still “business as usual” in the library, according to Tartaglione, who is also president of the New York City School Librarians’ Association (NYCSLA). But many students were still absent, in part because they received erroneous calls from the Department of Education telling them to stay home, she said.  On Wednesday, she planned to “have the library open, comfortable, and warm. I don’t know how many extra kids we’ll have.”

Voters who usually cast their ballots at John Jay were redirected to nearby P.S. 282 on Election Day.

With schools closed on Tuesday, Tartaglione planned to join other city librarians at the New York Department of Education Library Services Annual Fall Conference. Tartaglione expects a drop in attendance, and she said that some librarians have cancelled their presentations. “Aside from that, I think we are just trying to do the best we can and carry on,” she said.

The Queens facility of Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) was also getting ready to receive students, from a second BHSEC school located in lower Manhattan.“We are in preparedness mode,” said Queens BHSEC teacher Kim Nitchman. Several rooms in the library will be turned over to Manhattan faculty, and the Manhattan librarian will also relocate to Queens. Librarians from both campuses had been emailing over the weekend about technology usage, printing privileges, and, if needed, population limits in the library.

While schools were closed last week, teachers were busy, either reaching out to students at home or volunteering at evacuation centers. At Brooklyn Tech, athletic coaches and teachers called students who lived in evacuated zones to make sure they were all right, said Stevens, who supervises the debate team. Tartaglione said that staff at one school in the MLK campus building called every student on Friday.

At the John Jay High School building in Brooklyn, an evacuation center, Stuyvesant High School teacher Peter Brooks was volunteering, wearing a fluorescent vest and fielding whatever was thrown his way. Brooks said that there had been video rooms, concerts, and a magician for the younger children. A group of teachers from nearby PS 321, including music teacher Frank McGarry, showed up with musical instruments and performed twice. Therapy dogs were brought in as well, said Brooks.

First grade teacher Florence Delgado was hurrying to work at PS 226 in Bensonhurst on Friday morning. The school, like many others in the city that escaped damage, was open for teacher meetings. Staff had a lot of work to do to master the Core Curriculum, Delgado said.

At PS 321 on Friday morning, staff traded hurricane stories while snacking on bagels that had been sent over by the principal of another school.  As Principal Liz Phillips prepared to receive students on Monday, she noted the school’s history of raising funds for environmental or other causes, through student walkathons and other drives. This year, she expects many proceeds will go to Sandy victims.

On Staten Island, the Jerome Parker Campus was open on Monday, and librarian Patricia Sarles said the school was collecting donations for its own afflicted students. “Then we will do a drive for the rest of the island,” she said. “It’s helpful for students to feel like they can do something in the face of helplessness.”

Back in Bensonhurst, Minaudo and other teachers will carry on this week, even as their colleagues deal with tragedy. One staff member lost her home in Breezy Point. Another staff member’s neighbor was swept away by the tides on Staten Island.

“I think most people here are operating on adrenaline,” said Minaudo. “We won’t feel the full emotional impact until things return to normal. But as it was with 9/11, for many, it probably won’t ever be ‘normal’ again.”

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