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Losing Time or Doing Time: Drowning Public Education in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Superstorm Sandy exposes flawed priorities in public education.

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast of the United States, the worst fears became reality for many residents of Maryland, New Jersey and New York. While some property damage and elimination of some services were expected, few anticipated the enormous impact the storm and its consequences would have on public school students and educators in the region hit hardest by the hurricane. As of December 4, 2012, 11 schools remained closed in New Jersey, and more than 100 were significantly damaged. [1] In New York City alone, 48 schools were closed due to storm damage. [2] Many students who returned to schools in the weeks after the hurricane found they needed to bundle up in winter clothing because their buildings remained unheated. [3]

There appeared to be a rush to get children back into schools even though buildings remained unheated and without electricity, portions of some buildings were unsafe and air quality was questionable. Some students were temporarily reassigned to different schools. This was no small matter as classrooms rosters needed to be changed, teachers reassigned, new transportation arranged and lunchtime and dismissal procedures altered.

Also see: Henry A. Giroux | Hurricane Sandy in the Age of Disposability and Neoliberal Terror

Some school buildings served as emergency shelters weeks after the storm. At Brooklyn Tech High School in New York City, more than 250 evacuees were moved to the top two floors of the school so that students could resume classes. The principal, Elizabeth Johnson, reported that the school smelled of garbage and human waste because the evacuees, many of them psychiatric patients, were sleeping in classrooms. The school requested extra security. [4]

In an ironic twist of fate, many school and public officials publicly expressed concern about how to make up lost time, by which they meant corporate time – time dedicated to serving the interests of a market-driven culture and mode of learning. Schools in New Jersey and New York require public schools to meet for 180 days. Rather than use such time to connect what students learn to the pressures and issues that bear down on their lives, many school officials were more concerned about how to make up for lost time in in order meet the demands, if not the pressure, to demonstrate student performance on standardized tests. The stories that connect students and teachers to the outside world, even in the midst of a major crisis affecting the lives of students and their families, became irrelevant as the major concern that emerged in the aftermath of the storm was to speed up particular demands on teachers to deliver curriculum based on instruction geared to high-stakes testing. What boggles the mind and reveals how distorted priorities have become in many public schools is that while schools in New York City were overcrowded, unstaffed, and on lists of failing schools in advance of the storm, these issues were either downplayed or were absent in the post-Sandy discussions about the need to address the problems immediately posed by the tragic fury of Hurricane Sandy. [5]

Heated concerns about empirically-driven modes of teaching, testing and evaluation have stripped public schooling of any concern about developing pedagogies that are critical and socially responsible. Caught up in a market-driven notion of pedagogy that emphasizes testing, competition, and enshrines a kind of pathological individualism, public schools are being emptied of public values and an ethical grammar that allows students to think about what it means to be critical citizens and civic agents willing to help others. Preparing students for high-stakes testing and reducing teacher evaluations to empirically-driven tests are more than reckless, they reveal that the new educational reforms are not reforms at all, but basically a full-fledged attack on schools as places where students learn the knowledge, skills and values that enable them to be reflective about themselves, their relations to others, the history that informs who they are and their relationship to others and the world. Education has become flat-lined, a race to the bottom, and a place where dreams and the imagination come to die. Needless to say, focusing on mathematically based objectives, instrumental rationalities, memorization, isolated bits of knowledge and imagination-stripping modes of teaching seem like minor details when the enormity of what students experienced in the aftermath of the storm is taken into account. Many students had family members, property and homes, and countless numbers survived for days or weeks without electrical power or basic amenities. Students witnessed the anger of adults in their neighborhoods who faced long lines at gas stations and wrestled with a sense of abandonment as services and support was delayed. In the midst of such a crisis, public officials expressed a concern about public education that revealed how much they actually detest it.

Let’s be clear. The education of public school students is critical to a democracy and important to resume, even in the wake of a natural disaster. Yet, no public official quoted in the news reports expressed concern about students’ education and how it would be situated in any ethic of caring, given what students and teachers endured. No one spoke of the problematic learning environments or the effects of the trauma students would experience when they returned to some of the schools. Instead, their quotes expressed concern about students and teachers doing time, reflecting neoliberalism’s ongoing hollow conceptualizations of education. Whether this is a function of the media’s errors in reporting or the public officials’ limited understanding of education is irrelevant. Their comments, or lack thereof, reflect a broader crisis of public misunderstandings of education in a democratic society.

Neoliberalism has ravaged any public vestige of what it means to be educated or educating, and this is yet one more tragic example. As officials rush to reopen schools, teachers, school counselors and principals are left to pick up the pieces and care for the children in their midst, in spite of the trauma they may have experienced and in the face of what most adults would find to be unacceptable conditions for learning. Steve Light [6] reported in the World Socialist web site that thousands of teachers had served as volunteers, helping to fill the gap in government services in the aftermath of the hurricane, and he astutely notes that this is no small irony as they continue to be blamed for the problems of public education. It’s time blame is placed elsewhere and education is taken up seriously as an intellectual, ethical and social good. Teachers have become the new welfare queens, public servants are reduced to moochers who exploit government services, and students are merely clients reduced to statistical graphs that allegedly measure what it means to be educated. What Sandy revealed is that the corporate-driven culture that failed to protect many of the poorest victims of the storm, also failed to identify and address what matters in education, especially in the midst of a storm that not only destroyed classrooms but eliminated the possibility of rethinking what matters in education and what it takes to provide support for its most basic constituencies, teachers and students. Losing time for those teachers and students who felt the brunt of Hurricane Sandy ultimately translated into doing time, being subjected to a mode of corporate time that undermined the quality of teaching, learning and administration. Major crises generally offer a chance to rethink priorities, address important social issues, connect schools to everyday life, rethink the purpose and meaning of what education means. But in this case, public school officials simply allowed another disaster to serve as an excuse to mimic and reproduce the worst dimensions of an educational policy that wages war on the democratic values, ideals and values that offer the promise of a public education that truly educates, rather than trains and punishes.


John Mooney “Dealing with Sandy’s Aftermath Puts Schools to the Test.” NJSpotlight, (December 4, 2012)

Vivian Yee. “Schools Reopen to Snarls; Transit Headaches Persist.” The New York Times, November 5, 2012.

Yee, ibid.

Yee, ibid.

Steve Light (December 5, 2012). “Hurricane Sandy Compounds Crisis Facing Public Schools in New York City.”

Light, 2012

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