November 2, 2012
The Department of Education is on track to open all but 65 schools in their regular locations on Monday, one week after Hurricane Sandy hit the region, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said this afternoon.
But 65 schools are in buildings so severely damaged by the storm that the department must engineer co-location plans for them in just days, he said. The approximately 38,000 students in those schools, which the department has not yet named, will not begin classes until Wednesday.
Tonight, department officials said, teachers and principals at the schools would learn where they will reopen, and on Monday, school staff will work to prepare the new sites, all located inside other schools. Between now and then, officials will create new bus routes, sometimes to transport students great distances; move equipment and books; and negotiate space-sharing arrangements among schools that had until last week thought they had things figured out.
“Normally what we do over the course of over say a few months [is being] done over a few days,” Walcott said in a phone call with reporters this afternoon.
“This is something that normally we don’t turn around in this quick a fashion at this level,” he added. “This is a major turnaround in a very short period of time.”
One of the most challenging logistical pieces to put in place, he said, would be student transportation. The department runs 7,700 school bus routes each day, and a portion of them would have to be revised to bring students to different neighborhoods. Some students will have longer rides, he said, high school students will have to navigate a new path on public transportation.
Wednesday, the first time that bus drivers will follow the new routes, is “seriously going to be a challenging day,” Walcott said.
The department also faces a steep challenge in informing families located in the most devastated parts of the city that their children will be attending school in a new location. Walcott said the department would call, email, and send text messages to affected families, and he said officials would be stationed at each of the damaged school buildings on Monday to redirect students who arrive.
“There’s going to be some folks who may not get it,” he said. “I am sensitive to that.”
The new arrangements could also potentially involve significant changes in what happens inside individual classrooms. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, students at some schools that were temporarily housed together had their schedules shortened, and department officials said today that could happen again.
“It is something that could be an option if there really is not enough space to run parallel schedules,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said today. “It has not reached the point where we need to do that yet, but I would not rule it out.”
The 65 severely damaged schools include those with significant flooding, damaged boilers or roofs, destroyed electrical systems, and other serious problems induced by Sandy. They include two charter schools, according to city officials.
The number of schools expected not to be operational next week declined slightly from Thursday, when the city said 79 schools in 44 buildings were too damaged to open. Today, Mayor Bloomberg said the number of heavily damaged buildings stood at 40. In one change, Walcott said, Lehman High School in the Bronx had secured an emergency boiler to replace its damaged one.
Department officials said it was possible that other schools currently considered too damaged to open could be repaired before next week.
As of Friday afternoon, another 184 schools were waiting to have their power restored, many in Lower Manhattan, Walcott said. If ConEd restores power according to the timeline it has set out, most of those schools should have power by Monday, and Walcott said department staff would check each of the schools’ electrical systems over the weekend.
The department is also working on plans to support students whose homes and families might have been disrupted by the storm. Schools will offer counseling services to affected students and staff, and Polakow-Suransky said officials were also working to prepare materials “for kids who for whatever reason aren’t able to be in school” in the coming days and weeks.
The good news, Walcott said, is that most city teachers made it to school today, their first workday since the storm, even though some of them did not know until early this morning where they would need to report. Of 1,300 schools that had responded to an attendance survey by 4 p.m., 80 percent of teachers had made it to school today.
Walcott said he regretted not being able to get the information out sooner, but that the situation on the ground had changed quickly and continued to change today.
“I know the timelines we want to get information out were not hit yesterday,” he said. “I apologize to all of our staff.”
Two other logistical issues are complicating the reopening of schools. The first is that Tuesday is Election Day, so students will again have the day off. Some charter schools housed in district space had planned to hold classes, but Walcott said he decided today to bar them from doing so. He said safety agents for all buildings would be needed to man polling stations, which are located in schools.
In addition, eight large high school buildings are set to open next week with a different sort of co-location: between schools and homeless shelters.
At one of the shelter sites, Manhattan’s High School of Graphics Communication Arts, which has suffered acute problems of its own this year, teachers said their principal was petitioning the department to change the plans. The building is crowded with people evacuated from their homes or from hospitals that lost power, they said, and the school was increasingly in disarray.
Walcott said he had not yet visited the schools that are housing emergency shelters. But he promised that students and people who are being given shelter would be isolated from each other in the school buildings, which all have multiple entrances and floors. He said he would work with officials from other city agencies, including the Department of Homeless Services, to address “issues that are real or perceived to be real” inside school buildings and that he would not allow students to be placed in unsafe situations.
“If it’s not sanitary then it will be sanitary,” Walcott said. “If there’s a determination that a threshold is there that I am not comfortable with, then I will say that.”