respiratory distress

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

Debris and packed sand fills a street near the the beach in Belle Harbor a week after the storm hit. Three weeks after the storm, concerns are setting in about how poor air quality could affect 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.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.