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NJ Schools May Face Influx of Students Displaced by Storm

Memo from state outlines emergency procedures for taking in children from other districts.

It’s only a trickle so far, with most New Jersey schools just beginning to reopen this week, but Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath will likely mean a sizable number of children displaced not just from their homes but from their schools.

The state this week alerted districts to the rights of those displaced students, wherever they end up after the devastating storm, and to the procedures school districts must follow.

Under the federal law that protects homeless students, known as the McKinney-Vento Act, the state’s memo said that schools must enroll students right away and can work out paperwork in the ensuing weeks.

Displaced students are also entitled to stay in their new schools for the duration of the year, even if they find permanent housing elsewhere.

“With the devastation caused by the hurricane, there will be a significant increase in the number of displaced families,” said Education Commissioner Chris Cerf in the two-page letter to districts.

“Therefore, it is imperative that your district has a system to identify, enroll and provide expedited instructional and supportive services, including transportation, to students who have been deemed McKinney-Vento eligible and whose educational programs have been disrupted as a result of Hurricane Sandy,” he continued.

The extent of the problem at this point is unclear, with a majority of schools reopening just this week and those hardest hit only starting to make alternative arrangements for their students. Moonachie schools are sending 300 students to Wood-Ridge schools, for example.

There were 200 schools still without power yesterday, according to the state, and some of those handling the state’s outreach to districts said they are starting to receive calls from schools pertaining to procedures for accommodating displaced students.

Advocates said there will surely be more.

“There are displaced students all the time, but just not to the same volume as this will be,” said Joram Rejouis, assistant superintendent of Essex Regional Education Services Commission, who is handling calls for five North Jersey counties.

“And the uncertainty, too, where we don’t know when they will be returning home or whether their local school will be back,” he said.

It’s a significant problem already playing out in New York City, where more than 20,000 students have been displaced and moved to other schools. It was a huge problem in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in a quarter of New Orleans students being displaced and relocated across the country.

A study of that 2005 storm’s effect on students] by a Rand Corporation researcher found the educational impact was significant for those students, and he raised the same concern about Hurricane Sandy’s impact in the days leading up to the latest storm.

“Ideally, families would relocate to areas with good schools, enroll their children in schools immediately, and minimize subsequent moves that require additional school changes,” wrote John Pane, a senior information scientist for Rand, in an Oct. 31 post on Rand.org. “This is easier said than done.”

He said the uncertainty of when a family can return home makes it an especially difficult situation.

“Policymakers should seek ways to disseminate information to help parents form realistic expectations of the duration of the disaster and realize the importance of settling their children in schools quickly and with few transitions,” Pane wrote.

Several statewide advocacy groups contacted yesterday said they had yet to receive calls from families having difficulty finding new schools, but they commended the state for the proactive step of alerting districts.

“I’m glad to see this memo, it is really important,” said Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, adding she hopes it was sent to shelters, too.

She said most of the calls so far have been from families who cannot get children to their schools due to transportation problems or because their schools are not yet open.

In their daily update, state officials said yesterday that one in five public schools were still not able to open for classes today, making it the second full week they have been closed since the storm.

“Is anyone reaching out those families to tell them their rights to go to a school?” Autin said.

“And technically some of these families may not be homeless, as they are still in their homes,” she added. “A disaster like this is not addressed sufficiently by these regulations.”

In his memo, Cerf sought to address some of those questions.

“While not all students displaced by disasters are eligible for McKinney-Vento services, most are,” he wrote. “Students who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence are considered homeless pursuant to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and are eligible for services.”

Officials at the Advocates for Children of New Jersey in Newark said they have seen the immediate impact for child-care centers facing the same problems, and they expect it will start to arise more for schoolchildren.

“I think districts are scrambling to figure this out,” said Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst with ACNJ.

“Who knows how many of these students have even been identified at this point?” she said. “I don’t think this will be a clear story for at least a week or two.”

In its update, the state said schools were continuing to make slow progress in being ready to open schools. Eighty-two percent of districts were ready to open, and 77 percent of schools, according to the state.

However, a sizable number of districts that were ready nevertheless decided to stay closed yesterday for a variety of reasons. For some, it was the nor’easter that left a foot of snow in some parts of the state. Others opted not to change their calendars in the wake of the New Jersey Education Association cancelling its annual convention, two days that were long scheduled to be school holidays.

In the end, while 82 percent of 585 districts were ready to open, the state said only about 60 percent – or about 354 districts -- actually held classes.

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