Facebook Twitter

Schools reopen with low attendance, but officials are optimistic

Today marked the first day back to school for most city students, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg championed their attendance rate. But the figure he cited — 85 percent — didn’t count the 75,000 students who weren’t in attendance because their schools were temporarily closed, or hundreds of schools that did not report their attendance in time for his press conference.

Despite lingering complications from Hurricane Sandy, including power and transit woes, the majority of students and teachers invited to return to school today for the first time in a week made it. And several buildings reopened this morning despite sustaining massive damages a week ago.

For the site of his daily update on the city’s hurricane relief effort, Bloomberg picked one of those schools — P.S. 195 Manhattan Beach, a southern Brooklyn school that flooded and originally seemed unlikely to reopen to students today.

Flanked by other city officials, Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the number of closed schools is shrinking as more schools that were damaged or lost power slowly receive the repairs they need.

On Sunday, buildings too damaged to reopen contained 57 schools; Bloomberg said that number is 48 today. And just 19 schools remain without power, he said, down from more than 100 over the weekend.

One of the schools to which teachers will return on Tuesday is John Dewey High School, which Walcott cited last week as one of the most severely damaged in the city after an electrical fire during the storm. Department officials said the School Construction Authority had been able to install a generator and get Dewey’s boiler to work, obviating a planned three-building co-location.

Six of the other eight schools that will reopen to teachers on Tuesday and students on Wednesday are in Brooklyn, and two are on Staten Island. A full list of them is here.

But attendance was predictably lower than usual for the schools that did reopen. At the 62 percent of schools that had reported attendance by 1 p.m. — which likely did not include schools in the most disrupted parts of the city — about 85 percent of students were in class, city officials said. And 94 percent of teachers made it.

The city is also still grappling with other thorny problems as officials prepare to get the rest of the schools up and running by Wednesday. Among them is the question of how to craft new bus routes for thousands of students whose schools will open in different school buildings on Wednesday, and the question of how teachers will establish classroom routines again with students who may have lost electricity and other essentials last week. As of this afternoon, Bloomberg said about 174 public housing buildings around the city were still without power.

“Those kids are going to have to get special help, and teachers should be cognizant of that,” he said.

He said city workers are also racing to prepare the eight school buildings that are operating as shelters to reopen to students on Wednesday—a feat that will likely involve a massive cleaning effort and a plan for consolidating the remaining shelter residents to one or two school buildings.

Sources in Brooklyn say Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School is likely to be one of the schools that remain open to both students and shelter residents on Wednesday. Bloomberg said that if this happens, the students and residents will be kept on separate floors.

“We will make an accommodation if we have to,” he told reporters when asked whether the schools will be ready by then. Bloomberg credits the city’s school custodians and electrical engineers for making headway.

“The custodians did a phenomenal job,” he said. “The fact that we could open schools today is a testament to them,” he said, with a nod to Hector Figueroa, leader of the school custodians’ union.

P.S. 195 Principal Bernadette Toomey said the day had been a success, from her perspective, despite the challenges. P.S. 195 held two assemblies and lined up guidance counselors and a school psychologist to talk to students whose families experienced the brunt of the storm. The school also arranged small-group counseling for students to “express loss and [discuss] the relocation,” Toomey said in an interview. “It’s a lot on a big plate for small children.”

“They were able to meet with the students on an indvididual basis, and they just got right into the swing of things,” she added. “I know they’re missing a lot, a lot of them were heavily impacted, but I think they wanted to return to some normalcy and things that look familiar and comfortable, and warm. ”

She said some students had to relocate to other parts of Brooklyn or outside the borough with their families last week, and it put a strain on her youngest students. Students seemed cheerful as they spilled out of the school’s Irwin Avenue entrances shortly after 3 p.m.

“We wrote about what happened on the day of hurricane and drew pictures,” said third-grader Victoria Kutcher, whose family has been living with relatives since the hurricane, which knocked out power to her neighborhood.

Another Southern Brooklyn school where many students have homes that still lack power or heat, or experienced flooding last week is Sheepshead Bay High School. It opened to students who could make it to school this morning, and counselors surveyed students about their needs during the first period, which was extended to 90 minutes.

“We sent our staff to give students assessments of their immediate needs,” said Robin Schlenger, a site coordinator for Counseling in Schools, a community-based organization that partners with Sheepshead Bay High School to offer regular counseling to students. “The guidance counselors, CBO counselors and social workers spent a lot of time looking for students and talking to them,” throughout  the day.

Like many Southern Brooklyn families, the students’ needs were predictable, but important, she explained; many said they still lack electricity, water, heat, and Internet, which will make it harder for them to get school work done. Schools whose buildings have been newly cleared to reopen P.S. 276 Louis Marshall, Brooklyn P.S. 277 Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn John Dewey High School, Brooklyn Liberation Diploma Plus, Brooklyn P.S. 126 Jacob August Riis, Brooklyn I.S. 024 Myra S. Barnes, Staten Island The Richard Hungerford School, Staten Island I.S. 98 Bay Academy, Brooklyn P.S. 771, Brooklyn