In Red Hook, displaced students wait for school to re-open

By Omar Atia • Nov 23rd, 2012 • Category: News

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Sandy ripped through New York City, leaving large swaths of its infrastructure in shambles, the city’s public school system was still clamoring to regain its footing.

As many as 34,000 citywide public school students were forced to relocate to other buildings after the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy left their schools unable to open, according to the Department of Education.

In the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, which suffered severe flooding from the adjacent East River, the elementary school P.S. 15 remained closed after its basement was inundated by the storm.

“The entire basement was submerged,” said Marc Hari, a senior project coordinator for the Department of School Facilities, a branch of the DoE that oversees the maintenance and safety of public school buildings across the five boroughs. In the basement are the electrical and boiler rooms, both of which were ruined by flooding. “We had to replace all the parts,” said Mr. Hari, in detailing the extent of repair the DSF to fix the electrical room and restore power to the building. A new boiler room was also recently put in place to restore heat to the P.S. 15 building.

In the meantime, the 385 students that attend P.S. 15 were relocated to nearby P.S. 27, a building which already houses two schools. As a result of the three schools sharing space within the building, pink flyers hung in the hallways to designate which rooms were for which schools. With a shortage of available space, 22 classes from P.S. 15 were squeezed into 18 temporarily available rooms within the P.S. 27 building. As a result, some classes were co-instructed by as many as four teachers, who led an overcrowded room of students merged from different classes.

The overcrowding problems notwithstanding, students “adjusted really well,” said P.S. 15 special-education teacher Julie Cavanagh. “They’ve made the best of a bad situation. We sort of call it the new normal.”

The DoE initially planned to relocate the students at P.S. 15 to far-out areas in Queens, Canarsie, and Bedford Stuyvesant, but after mounting backlash from the school’s administration and faculty – the Department opted to keep them in Red Hook. Ms. Cavanagh stressed that had the students been “shipped out of the neighborhood,” many people would have simply not gone to school.

But staying in the neighborhood presented its hardships, too, as many of the surrounding New York City Housing Authority buildings in Red Hook – home to a large number of P.S. 15 students – were still without heat or power.  According to Ms. Cavanagh, the majority of her students didn’t have electricity until November 13th, and a week later “almost all of them still [had] no hot water or heat.”

Despite the difficult living conditions, P.S. 15 Principal Peggy Wyns-Madison said that attendance has steadily improved since November 5th, the first day classes resumed after the storm. On Friday, November 16th, attendance was at nearly 80%, up from 50% in the days following Hurricane Sandy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hari and his staff from the DSF worked steadfastly to re-open P.S. 15 by Monday, November 19. Acquiring electrical-part replacements was one obstacle in the repair process, as the increased demand throughout the city depleted supplies and made the wait as long as 15 weeks. Additionally, the DSF took thorough measures to disinfect and remove all the water-damaged sheetrock and pipes, which are breeding grounds for mold. A feint smell of mildew still pervaded the halls on a recent visit to the closed building, but Mr. Hari assured that air-quality tests conducted by outside consultants deemed the building safe.

Still, the DSF planned to properly ventilate the building over the weekend before the re-opening on Monday. Ms. Cavanagh as well as the staff and students at P.S. 15 eagerly await the return to normal. “It’ll be good to go home and have that stability,” said Cavanagh.

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