NJ Schools Strive to Get Kids Back in Classrooms

Many districts reopen but hundreds still struggle with lack of power, building damage, transportation issues

One of the most telling signs that New Jersey has returned to normal after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation will be the sight of kids back in classrooms of reopened schools.

A week after the storm, New Jersey schools are slowly getting there, with about 1,000 of the state’s 2,400 schools open yesterday and scores, if not hundreds, more expected to be ready to open Tuesday – although many still expected to stay closed on Election Day.

Officials said 700 schools were still without power and many more continued to struggle with transportation problems, lack of heat and other concerns.

That has left the Christie administration helping – and pressing — districts to get as creative as possible within the confines of safety.

That may mean moving some children to other schools for the time being, improvising transportation systems, or reopening a district even if not all of the schools are ready for students.

“We’re sending a very clear message to schools not to let perfect be the enemy of the good here,” state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said yesterday. “We certainly don’t want to overrule local concerns about safety, of course, but customize where you can.”

It may be weeks or even months before some school buildings are ready for occupancy, Cerf and others said.

Some districts have already made plans to move students to other schools. Moonachie students will attend Wood-Ridge schools, for instance, and students at a Red Bank primary school will double up in another district school.

“In my 40 years in education in New Jersey, I have never seen anything like this,” said Lawrence Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association and a longtime district and county superintendent. “Nothing like this, it’s by far the worst.”

The association has set up its own hot line for districts to call for help with supplies, technical services or other needs. Every district is being contacted in the next week to determine their specific needs and status, Feinsod said.

He agreed with Cerf that getting students back with teachers was paramount, even if it means children are in a different location. The longer students are out of school completely, Feinsod said, the longer it will take for them to catch up.

“It’s called continuity of instruction, and clearly districts are worried about the lapsed time of kids being off,” Feinsod said. “They are trying very hard to not let this go too long and reduce that contact time with teachers.”

Yesterday, Cerf was working out of the state’s emergency management center in West Trenton, where he was among several teams of state officials triaging the countless crises still facing the state, from fuel shortages to power outages to extensive property damage.

For schools, the problems were big and small. East Orange schools, for example, were unable to reopen because of a shortage of fuel for their boilers.

“So we worked with Hess [fuel company] to solve that problem,” Cerf said. “And I just got a call from Newark, where they were having the same problem with some of their schools.”

He said it will take some patience, but he hoped there will be significant improvement in the next several days.

“We will see the number of schools increase dramatically in the next 48 hours,” Cerf said.