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A year after landfall, looking back on Sandy's toll on schools

One year ago today, city students had the first of what ultimately became at least a week — and in some cases longer — of hurricane days, after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the city, taking its transportation system, power infrastructure, and hundreds of school buildings offline.

A year later and hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs later, the schools are operating normally, for the most part. But the academic, physical, and emotional effects continue to resonate for some affected students and teachers. Here’s a look back at the last year.

The damage

In Manhattan Beach, water flooded P.S. 195’s auditorium to nearly stage level heights. In Gravesend, a newly-installed media center in the basement of William Grady Career and Technical High School was wiped out. And in Far Rockaway at the Beach Channel Educational Campus, the smell of oil lingered for months because of a spill caused by an explosion in the boiler room.

These were just a part of the damage that was discovered by inspectors In the immediate aftermath of the storm. About 200 schools — roughly 17 percent of the city’s 1,200 school buildings — were damaged by the storm, although most turned out to be minor. A smaller list totaling about 40 schools sustained damage that caused them to be inoperable for weeks and, in some cases, months. Some city schools are still operating with temporary boilers and human fire alarm systems today.

The response

Mayor Bloomberg ended up closing all schools for five days, while some stayed shut for one or two days longer. Initially, the city used 79 school buildings as shelters for the most vulnerable victims of the storm, then consolidated its temporary tenants into a smaller list.

The city was eager to get teachers back to work quickly to lay the groundwork for a return to normality. While most schools reopened after a week and could quickly resume their normal school routines, dozens were thrust into new space-sharing arrangements to accompany refugees from the badly damaged schools. In a city where school co-locations can make for bitter neighbors, the space-sharing happened with cheer.

Similarly, the city and union put bickering and bargaining over teacher evaluations on hold to work together on storm recovery. Teachers and administrators pitched in to help students and their families, even as some had lost their own homes in the storm.

The long-term impact

In the first days and weeks after the storm, students and families placed a priority on relocating or getting their personal lives back in order. Student attendance at schools in some Sandy-hit areas were in the single digits, while most hovered around 50 percent. The citywide average attendance is usually over 90 percent.

To make up for the time lost in the classroom the Department of Education did a couple of things. First, the city and the teachers union put aside their considerable differences to reach an agreement to keep school open for three days during a week that was normally a vacation. The department also launched a website for parents to review curriculum and lessons with their children during the days off.

Many students barely missed a beat. But for some high-need students, the storm represented a significant disruption to a delicate learning environment. A top state education policy maker suggested this spring that students whose attendance had been diminished significantly because of Sandy and a subsequent special education school bus strike should not have to take the state’s math and reading tests.

Six months after the storm, teachers and students at one hard-hit high school said they were still struggling.”The reality is that the world is still upside down,” said a teacher at Channel View School for Research.

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