November 7, 2012
Thursday will mark a milestone in New York City’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy: All public schools will be open for the first time, Chancellor Dennis Walcott confirmed this afternoon.
But if today’s attendance figures are any guide, students from the most storm-battered areas likely won’t be there.
Today, 43 schools in heavily damaged buildings opened for the first time in new sites, some many miles away. Another 25 of the city’s 1,750 schools remained closed because they had no power or because the city had been using them as shelters. But for the vast majority of schools, today approximated a regular school day.
Citywide, student attendance today at schools that submitted attendance reports was 87 percent, according to the Department of Education, and 95 percent of teachers reported for duty. Mayor Bloomberg called the attendance rates “encouragingly high” during a news conference this afternoon.
But at most, 43 percent of students in relocated schools made it to their new sites as the city struggled to roll out new bus routes for tens of thousands of students.
Some relocated schools drew far more students than others. Two selective schools in Lower Manhattan, Bard High School Early College and Millennium High School, each posted attendance rates over 95 percent in their first day in temporary sites.
Several schools based in storm-battered Far Rockaway, on the other hand, had less than 10 percent of students show up today.
And at P.S./M.S. 114, previously housed in a school located just a block away from the water, just 2 percent of its 787 students showed up to one of the three host buildings. At P.S. 106, only 3 percent of 285 students turned up.
Walcott said the low attendance rates in some relocated schools masked progress. “I always want it higher but we’re pleased that people are glad to see their schools opening again,” he told reporters.
Principals and teachers at some of the relocated schools said today would be their first chance to find out what happened to many of their students — and to get a sense of how many might remain enrolled.
Department officials said enrollment had begun to fluctuate as families displaced by the storm picked new schools. Two Brooklyn schools have gotten influxes of 80 or more students, according to Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who said officials have started to detect “smaller spikes elsewhere.”
“Our kids are all over the place,” said Craig Dorsi, a teacher at Channel View School for Research, which had 15 percent attendance. “They’re in shelters, they’re staying with relatives.”
This morning, Dorsi waited outside and hugged students as they entered the Franklin K. Lane Campus, Channel View’s host. “It’s so great to see you,” Dorsi told students and parents who accompanied them on the trip. He later said he had been overwhelmed by the emotional reunion.
Just seven students from Channel View and Beach Channel High School, which together have more than 900 students, took a coach bus provided by the city to Franklin K. Lane this morning. The bus, which picked up students at Beach Channel Campus and arrived at 10:45 a.m. The department planned for high school students to get transportation after buses delivered younger students to their schools.
The shuttle bus was part of the city’s patchwork solution posed by an inadequate supply of buses and interrupted train lines. Other students who came today from Far Rockaway, where subway service remains interrupted, said they had not known about the shuttle and instead took a bus and two trains to get to Franklin K. Lane. One student, Ragib Shaumik, biked 90 minutes in swirling winds to get to school.
Parents still living in Far Rockaway also said they didn’t know that the bus service was available. Elaine Burns, a Channel View parent, accompanied her daughter Nubia on public transportation.
“She was a little nervous because she felt it was like the first day of school again,” Burns said.
Department officials said on Tuesday that they had only enough buses for half of the 20,000 students in relocated schools. For Thursday, the department was able to muster buses for just four more schools, leaving thousands of students still without transportation. The department is providing Metrocards and reimbursing families for gas and cab fare.
And the new bus routes that did take effect in storm-damaged neighborhoods — which department officials said they had planned out manually — were not without snafus on their first day.
“We had some problems which we anticipated we would,” said Kathleen Grimm, the department’s operations chief. “Some buses were late, some didn’t go to the right places, but by and large I think it went pretty well. … We’re continuing to try to secure more busing.”
The city received special permission today from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to let people drive school buses who do not meet regular qualifications, and to broaden the kinds of vehicles that can be used to transport students.
Transportation was not the only thing that disrupted the school day for students in storm-affected buildings. Dozens of schools remained without heat as snow began to fall across the city. And some students didn’t get much to eat: At John Dewey High School, teachers said no food had been delivered and students instead had eaten “granola bars for breakfast and cold green beans for lunch.”
“We served a cold lunch because the kitchen still does not have full power,” said Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman. “Students were offered a deli sandwich, vegetable, fruit and milk.”
On Thursday, 13 schools that still do not have power will open in alternate locations, and students will return to three school buildings that have also served as shelters. Department officials said 28 schools could still lack heat.
Despite the tumult, Walcott said he was uplifted when he visited three schools today: P.S. 38 in Staten Island, where he said the principal estimated that 70 percent of families were disrupted by the storm; P.S. 13 in East New York, which is hosting Far Rockaway’s Scholars’ Academy; and Brooklyn Technical High School, whose top two floors remain a shelter for medically fragile evacuees.
In all of the schools, and in others he has visited this week, he said teachers and students “just want to get back to the lifestyle that they are used to” and are starting to do so. At P.S. 38, which had not reported attendance by 4 p.m., students had written essays about the storm, Walcott said.