Schools Still Struggle to Cope with Sandy’s Aftermath

John Mooney | December 14, 2012 | Education
Displaced students, lost class time, fiscal worries among lingering problems, Assembly panel told

It was a statement repeated over and over by educators testifying before a state Assembly panel: They were never trained to handle an event like Hurricane Sandy, and there was little they could have done to prepare.

“We definitely didn’t go to superintendent class for this,” said Lisa Savoia, the Keyport schools superintendent. “This was not part of Superintendent 101.”

Appearing before the Assembly’s education committee yesterday, Savoia was the first among more than a dozen educators who described how they have adapted and adjusted to meet the new reality of shuttered schools and displaced students.

The situation in Keyport and neighboring districts was illustrative of the patchwork of safety nets continuing to be employed to help the tiny district of Union Beach as it copes with devastation that destroyed or damaged more than 600 homes and displaced as many as one-third of its residents.

Union Beach’s 750 students were left without a school when water swept through the prekindergarten-to-eighth-grade building.

“You wouldn’t believe the power of water, how it could move everything off their footings,” said Superintendent Joseph Annibale.

With the building not expected to be fully repaired until spring, Union Beach’s students are scattered across the county: preschoolers to makeshift quarters in the district’s administrative offices, elementary school pupils to a Middletown parochial school, and middle-school students attending two schools in Keyport.

At the same time, Keyport has faced its own challenges, with its high school including recovering from being an evacuation center for 150 individuals in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane and providing an array of other services for the community.

The first challenge came – and remains – just getting the children into the classroom once classes resumed two weeks after the hurricane. Even a full month later, Annibale said, at least 65 of his families still reside in towns outside of Union Beach, each entitled to transportation to their hometown schools – no matter where that may be.

“There are simply not enough bus drivers and buses to go around,” he said. “We want to bring them all back, but I have 65 families . . . We are making strides but we’re not reaching everybody.”

Keyport has done its best to accommodate the Union Beach students, its superintendent said, keeping them together in their own classes.

Still, the late winter and spring loom with lingering uncertainties: How long will the students need alternative space? What will their town look like when their school reopens? Will residents want to return?

“When we become a school again, many of our families will not be back in town,” Annibale said. “That burden will still be on top of our plate.”

Another question: Will the tax base still be there to pay for that school, or for the students who were attending neighboring high schools even before the storm? Keyport High School receives roughly $3.5 million a year for Union Beach students.

“Given what has happened (in Union Beach), we have a real concern about what will happen with that,” Savoia said.

But the administrators kept coming back to the impact on the students, as well, the effect of being displaced from their homes and familiar environs.

Annibale said his students had never taken a school bus other than on an occasional field trip.

Savoia said lost classroom days essentially set the school year back to September, with critical instruction lost and little leeway in state testing that will come in the spring.

“It would be wonderful if timelines were extended, but don’t know if physically can be done,” she said.

The Assembly panel heard other stories from other educators.

Beach Haven Superintendent Patricia Daggy said she is still waiting for the November tax levy check from the municipality. She said she was told local residents are reluctant to pay their water bills, let alone their tax bills.

She and others said if there was a bright side to Sandy’s devastation, it was the cooperation and support that schools have offered each other and their families.

Daggy is now sending her students to Eagleswood School while her school continues to be renovated. “They have taken us in and haven’t asked a single thing in return,” she said.