When Monmouth Beach Elementary School reopened June 3, it represented one more milestone in New Jersey schools’ return to normal in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Eight months after the storm left more than two feet of water in the 300-student school, administrators desperately wanted to reopen in time for eighth-grade graduation in late June.
“They missed their whole year here, so we wanted to be sure they had their special moment here,” said Principal Brian Farrell. “It was very important to us, we got to beat the storm. It didn’t beat us. It couldn’t keep us out.”
A total of 60 percent of schools statewide were closed in the immediate aftermath of the storm. The reopening of Monmouth Beach left just five schools shuttered – four of them are now on timetables to reopen in September. The five schools are in Beach Haven, Moonachie, Long Beach Island and Seaside Heights, as well as Monmouth Vocational School.
In the end, no students lost required class days, the state said, despite earlier fears that the state’s 180-day requirement might need to be waived. And, for all the devastation, a vast majority of the state’s estimated 3,800 students displaced by the storm have been able to return to their original schools.
But it still hasn’t been easy for many schools in the seven months since Sandy, with Monmouth Beach providing an example of the trials and adjustments schools went through, especially along the Jersey Shore.
“I want to congratulate you, that’s what I’m really here for more than anything else is to say congratulations,” Gov. Chris Christie said yesterday, visiting Monmouth Beach and Union Beach, which also reopened its school this month.
“Because while the state lent whatever help we could lend, in the end it was the people of Monmouth Beach and the parents, the leaders of this town, that got this school reopened,” he said.
Farrell, the Monmouth principal who also serves as the district’s superintendent, said the gloss of new paint and the shiny floors evident yesterday belied the impact the storm.
The school lost nine days right off, and then was forced to run on shortened days for six weeks as the transportation to area schools was worked out.
Grades 5-8 went to Shore Regional High School, grades 1-4 went to West Long Branch, and kindergarteners traveled to Oceanport, all bussed from the Monmouth Beach School each day.
Farrell said none of the neighboring schools “charged us a dime” for use of the space, and insurance covered the estimated $2.5 million in extra costs and repairs. He said the district did not end up needing FEMA money.
Asked what lessons had been learned, the principal said the school is putting in barriers to try to prevent a repeat of flooding that destroyed the boiler as well as heating and electrical systems in each classroom.
“At all the entrance doors and the vents to the classroom where the water came in, they will have barriers to protect the school,” he said. “That’s our summer project.”
Farrell said another lasting lesson was the need to have a variety of ways to communicate with parents.
“You have to use email, phone blasts, Twitter, texting, that’s what we learned,” he said. “If the phone lines are down, you have to find another way.”
The school did lose about a dozen students whose families decided to leave Monmouth Beach and the district. Overall, 30 families were displaced, but the rest stayed with the district in their temporary schools and then returned last week.
In the end, the nine lost days were made up, saved by the lack of snow days this winter and days made up over the Easter and Presidents Weekend breaks. The school year will end on June 21, as planned.
“June is June, and you want the kids to be out,” Farrell said. “You don’t want the extra week if you don’t have to.”
And for all the struggles, for all the teachers who had to use borrowed space and supplies, and all the students who were forced into new buildings and onto busses for the first time, the principal said he’s confident their education didn’t suffer.
In a school where 85 percent of students pass the state’s tests in math and language arts, the state’s results for this spring’s testing of grades 3-8 haven’t come back yet, but Farrell said the district’s own assessments of its second-graders showed all students either proficient or advanced.
“Our teachers really stepped up, and I know our kids got a good education,” he said.