Schools transformed into shelters in wake of Hurricane Sandy

Classes were cancelled at many schools in the path of Superstorm Sandy for a third day this week, as schools continued to house people driven from their homes in the aftermath of the disaster. Downed trees—which crushed cars, blocked roads and knocked out power lines—along with stalled mass transit systems meant it would have been nearly impossible for many students to get to school. And a large swath of the region hit by the superstorm, as meteorologists are calling the violent mix of weather that hit the East Coast this week, was still without power.

Hurricane Sandy flooding on Avenue C at East 6th Street, moments before the power substation blew and the neighborhood lost electricity. October 29, 2012. (Photo by David Shankbone)

Many education reporters were pulled off the schools beat to cover the storm, but here is an overview of storm coverage about schools from the week so far:

Bonnie Rochman, writing for Time, says Sandy demonstrates a big shift in how school systems respond to storms.

“There’s a constant stream of updated weather-related information. And it’s also easier to get the word out. Gone are the days of waking up early and plastering an ear to the radio to find out if school’s cancelled. Now, robo-calls and emails mean that parents learn of a superintendent’s decision within minutes.”

She concludes that the up-to-the-minute information systems can sometimes lead officials to close school unnecessarily. In the case of Sandy, however, most officials and parents will likely agree that the school closures were wise.

Before the storm hit, New Jersey education chief Chris Cerf strongly encouraged superintendents to close schools: “The decision remains a local one, but I cannot be any clearer: the effects of the storm are only going to get worse and it is in everyone’s best interest for districts and charters to cancel school.” The vast majority of school superintendents followed his instructions. According to the Newark Star Ledger, “of the state’s nearly 600 school districts, 467 reported being closed Monday and 574 reported that they would be shut down Tuesday, said state education department spokeswoman Barbara Morgan, who noted that more districts may be closed than what has been reported to the state.”

Indeed, in New Jersey, the state hardest hit, a report from Bloomberg News said about 4,500 people were staying in shelters yesterday, according to Gov. Chris Christie, and as many as 5,500 had evacuated to shelters on the first day of the storm. Many of those shelters are schools: “About 1,500 people from Moonachie and nearby Little Ferry went to a shelter at Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro. Many had been rescued after a tidal surge pushed the Hackensack River over its banks. They crowded into National Guard trucks and school buses carrying garbage bags filled with clothes, stuffed animals and other belongings.”

In New York City, the nation’s largest school system with 1.1 million children, schools were closed again on Wednesday, also in part because many are being used as shelters. Gotham Schools reported that “residents displaced from their homes continue to be housed at shelters inside 76 school buildings … suggesting that it could be some time before schools can reopen.” For some schools, it might take longer than others to reopen: “At least some schools have suffered … extensive damage. A video taken this morning showed what appeared to be an explosion inside John Dewey High School, located just blocks from the water in eastern Brooklyn. The fire started in Dewey’s basement, according to a Twitter feed that reports FDNY alerts, and efforts to assess the damage are underway now, according to a Department of Education spokeswoman.”

Newsday reported that schools across Long Island and the Hudson Valley were still closed, and elsewhere schools shut down as East Coast residents assess the damage, wait for the power to come back on and begin to rebuild.

Some children were sad to hear schools might not open for a few days. For those celebrating a day off on Halloween, Gotham Schools noted that “school days missed for inclement weather or other emergencies must be made up.”

(The Hechinger Report is located in New York City at Teachers College, Columbia University, which is closed due to the storm. Several members of our staff have been impacted by Sandy, but we’ll still be reporting on the election and other important news related to education in the coming week.)

POSTED BY ON October 31, 2012