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“It’s Not Going to be the Same”: The School Year After Hurricane Sandy

Students who were displaced by Sandy are still struggling to get their academic feet back on the ground.

It’s been more than two months since Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, but for many students, the storm has continued to affect daily life and routines. “It was pretty tough,” says Calvary, a 17-year-old high school senior from Rockaway Beach. “You have to adjust to this.” Her school was one of dozens displaced by the storm, and she was just able return to her home school, Beach Channel High, on January 2.

Monday morning, the day the storm hit, Calvary went to the store to get candy and saw how high the water was rising. “And I live by the beach too, so I was like — it’s real out here,” she said. “And then we evacuated.” Her family fled to their church in Brooklyn and stayed there into November, since their building remained without power for several weeks. Luckily, Calvary’s home wasn’t damaged by the storm beyond lack of electricity, but several of her classmates’ houses were.

Due to severe damage to the building’s heating system, Beach Channel was temporarily relocated to a larger high school, Franklin K Lane, about 9 miles away near the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Before the Department of Education began providing buses, it took Calvary over an hour to get there via public transit. And she was hardly the only one struggling. One boy, Beach Channel’s homecoming king, “came to the new school to tell [us] he’s not coming [to school] anymore,” Calvary said. “He was in gym clothes, so you knew all his stuff was really destroyed.”

It’s difficult to find much clear data about exactly how many students were displaced, transferred or forced to relocate or leave their schools due to the storm. There are over 10,000 families and 20,000 children in New York City’s shelter system, but that data, from the Department of Homeless Services, does not distinguish how many of those were displaced because of the storm. It also does not include families who are staying with friends, family, or in temporary FEMA residences.

Students who lost their homes were able to enroll in a new school closer to their temporary location, or to receive transportation to their regular school thanks to an existing law meant to protect homeless students. And while 94% of NYC schools were able to reopen a week later, the Department of Education’s Web site lists 84 schools that were temporarily closed, nine of which are still relocated according to the most recent documents available. A number of schools have returned to their original sites but still have no working phone service. In November, Chancellor Walcott announced that displaced students would be able to continue their educations by taking classes online through a program called iLearnNYC (though, presumably, displaced or homeless students might have trouble accessing the Internet).

For students in highly affected areas, the storm has profoundly disrupted the flow of the academic year. KK, a seventh-grader in Far Rockaway, said it was a relief to get back to school after several weeks without power. “It felt like a normal day, like nothing happened,” she said of her first day back. When I asked what her teachers said to students on the first day back to school, KK said, “They were just happy we were okay,” but added, “They said we have to catch up on a lot of work because of the time we missed.”

The students have been preparing for the state standardized tests administered in the spring semester. “When we take the New York State tests, they’re not going to care because of the [storm]… they’re still going to give us the tests no matter what.” I asked if her teachers seemed worried about the tests, but KK said they weren’t. “They’re just making sure they give us the right education.”

Calvary from Rockaway Beach agreed that teachers and school administrators are doing their best to take care of the students, even while they were displaced at their temporary high school. Some of her teachers were also displaced by the storm. “They weren’t in their houses, but they came every day,” said Calvary. “My math teacher, she’s a trooper. She came every day. It’s tiring, because I have math every day,” she said with a laugh. “But she came, and she was like, ‘Oh my god, I missed you!’”

The students also received a new guidance counselor at their temporary school, who helped make sure that seniors were submitting college applications on time and others were prepared for the SATs. “They made sure [we] came to every class,” she said. “We got stuff done.”

Students like Calvary and KK have been expected to keep up with the regular timeline of the school year, from college applications to state tests, regardless of how the storm has affected their lives. However, for students with more specific educational needs, particularly students with disabilities, state and national requirements have sometimes been impossible to meet.

In November, a memo from the State Education Department detailed some of the problems that special-needs students and educators are facing in the wake of the storm. Students with disabilities are provided educational plans known as Individualized Education Programs (or IEPs), that addresses each child’s specific academic goals and identify the areas where they need support. If students with IEPs were suddenly placed in new schools as a result of Hurricane Sandy, there’s no guarantee that these new schools are equipped to address that child’s specific IEP recommendations. For students who may require extra support or specific educational needs, displacement could put their academic year in an even more precarious state than their peers in general ed.

Educators and children’s advocacy organizations have worked hard to provide support and access to information for newly homeless families and families of children with special needs. “Schools have done a tremendous job marshaling public support and getting resources to families in need,” said Jennifer Solar, director of communications at Advocates for Children, which provides legal and advocacy services for students in temporary housing. “What remains to be seen is how schools will deal with the longer-term aftermath of the storm. For example, will we see a rise in suspensions related to more stressful living situations both for students as well as teachers?” Solar said that in some communities, both students and teachers had lost all their housing.

Calvary told me that although she’s finally back at her home school, things feel far from familiar. “Because of the time we spent out of the building, or because of the… people that aren’t there anymore, it’s not going to be the same.” She said that there are no after-school activities set up yet, and that the building feels “cold” after being away from it so long. Kids who had gone out for the basketball team at the temporary site, Franklin K Lane, had to leave that team once they returned to their original building. “They bought all the equipment, the gym bag, everything, and now they’re not there anymore,” Calvary said.

For many residents of the hard-hit areas, the time that has passed since the storm has not brought relief, and community members are still struggling to recover from the damage. And the Rockaways, with many low-income neighborhoods, high-rise public housing towers and small family homes, continues to reel from the lack of institutional support. “Things are staying the same,” said KK, who has been volunteering with Occupy Sandy and the local relief efforts in her community. “We [asked] for help and we didn’t get it. They don’t really care about Far Rockaway.”

KK and Calvary both seem like happy kids back to a semi-regular routine, supported by the staff at their schools. But for the students who didn’t return, and the thousands who remain in temporary housing, the academic year marches on without stability, support and access, and the consequences may last far beyond this school year. For KK, the volunteer effort in her community means a lot to her, although “it has its ups and downs.” But she feels like she’s making a difference. “Having one less sad person in the world feels actually good for me.”

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