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Rockaway families say they're worried air isn't safe for students

Parents at schools just beginning to recover from Hurricane Sandy are concerned that worsening air quality on the Rockaway peninsula could pose a health concern for students who return.

At a meeting Monday night for families in District 27, which includes many hard-hit neighborhoods, a parent leader said children at her newly reopened school arrived with masks to protect them from pollution caused by the storm.

The parent leader, Alexandra Siler, said she sent her daughter to P.S. 317 with a protective mask on Monday, the school’s first day back after two weeks in a temporary location, even before two students there experienced respiratory distress after coming in from recess.

One P.S. 317 student was hospitalized Monday, a Department of Education spokeswoman said. Siler said the school also called an ambulance for a second child but that a parent arrived to pick the student up first.

The hospitalized child, who Siler said was in pre-kindergarten, is feeling better and is now in stable condition, according to the department spokeswoman.

Propelled by $200 million in emergency funding, the department has reopened 20 severely damaged schools on the Rockaway peninsula in the past week. The rapid restoration has meant that thousands of students no longer have to travel long distances to get to cramped temporary sites that sometimes lacked even basic classroom resources.

But it also means that students are returning to school buildings that are surrounded by blocks of waste and sandy debris.

When the 14-foot storm surge crashed into the peninsula, it destroyed homes, ruptured sewer lines, knocked out power, and left several inches of hard-packed sand that has since loosened. Now, soaked drywall is rotting with mold in many homes, and piles of garbage line the streets in between mounds of sand.

Cleanup efforts are well underway, but parents say the presence of large construction and sanitation vehicles only disperses debris into the air and onto the sidewalks.

Siler, who also serves on District 27’s Community Education Council, raised the issue of air quality at the elected parent group’s monthly meeting, the first since Sandy hit three weeks ago. Ray McNamara, another elected parent leader, confirmed the reports, adding that the two children had pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Siler said her daughter was among many children at P.S. 317, the Waterside Children’s School, who are wearing masks to avoid inhaling any debris particles in the air. And she said she herself had developed a cough while working at the school, which reopened for the first time on Monday. She said other staff members were coughing as well.

Locals have taken to calling her condition the Rockaway cough, “a common symptom that health officials said could come from mold, or from the haze of dust and sand kicked up by the storm and demolitions,” according to a New York Times article about health concerns that are cropping up in storm-battered regions.

The air in the Rockaways is so full of particles that the traffic police wear masks — though many recovery workers do not, worrying people who recall the fallout of another disaster.

“It’s just like 9/11,” said Kathy Smilardi, sitting inside the skeleton of her gutted home in Broad Channel, wrapped in a white puffy jacket, her breath visible in the afternoon cold. “Everyone runs in to clean up, and they’re not wearing masks. Are we going to wait 20 years to figure out that people are dying?”

McNamara, a disabled 9/11 first responder himself, said at the parent meeting that it was too soon to tell if the medical issues at P.S. 317 pointed to a broader concern about the safety of school buildings.

But Division of School Facilities CEO John Shea told the parents that regardless of conditions in the nearby community, the district’s school buildings are safe for children.

“We would not ask you to put your children back into these buildings if we did not feel they were safe,” Shea said at the District 27 meeting. “There’s a lot of people that were looking at these buildings before we made that decision.”

But Siler said she doubted the problems came from inside the building. She said the students only became ill after playing outside.

“At least have the streets clean,” Siler said. “You clean inside a school, that’s great. You sanitize inside of a school, great, I commend you. Pump oil and water out of the basement. That’s lovely, it smells fresh. But when you have students coming in here from outside tracking all that nastiness back in, it kind of defeats the purpose.”

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