LI schools face lots of repairs after Sandy

A recovery crew removes desks and chairs that A recovery crew removes desks and chairs that were damaged during suprtstorm Sandy at East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School. (Nov. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: David Pokress

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Ten Long Island public schools require major renovations and another 100 need repairs because of superstorm Sandy, state education experts say.

Some individual districts say they expect repairs to cost in the millions of dollars, though the overall price tag of the destruction has not been calculated.

State Education Department experts accompanied by regional school officials and a Newsday reporter got a firsthand look at the extensive damage during a nine-hour inspection trip across the Island last week.

What they saw in East Rockaway, Island Park and Long Beach were schools inundated only days before with up to 5 feet of saltwater, resulting in ruined heating and electrical systems, and classrooms, auditoriums, cafeterias and gymnasiums soaked and strewn with sand.

"Classrooms, the library, office, gym -- all wiped out," said Roseanne Melucci, the East Rockaway superintendent, describing tidal-surge effects on the district's Rhame Avenue Elementary School.

East Rockaway High School suffered significant damage: A gym floor was so warped it resembled ocean waves, and hundreds of auditorium seats were stained with sandy residue all the way to the tops of their backrests.

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Recovery work already had begun.

Restoration workers, many in face masks, dried out hallways and wiped down walls with disinfectant to combat mold -- a potential health hazard. Meanwhile, district administrators worked round-the-clock to reassemble staffers scattered by the storm and to find alternative classrooms for students.

Melucci has announced that students in kindergarten through sixth grade will return to classes Tuesday at Centre Avenue Elementary School, and the district expects to find space so that secondary students can return this week.

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"What I saw . . . catastrophic flooding, yes," said Chuck Szuberla, the state's assistant commissioner for school operations, who led Tuesday's inspection of six districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties. "But I also saw a lot of ingenuity -- people taking care of the problems and helping each other."

State education officials said much of such repair costs normally are reimbursed by insurance. Federal emergency aid picks up 75 percent of whatever remains, with the other 25 percent typically split between the state and the local districts, unless the local share is waived.

The state's initial estimate of schools damaged is based on those located in flood areas.

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Weighing 180-day ruleIn addition to cleanup costs, schools shut down by the storm face the question of how to make up lost class time. State law normally requires a minimum 180-day school calendar.

State education officials have urged schools to cancel vacations if necessary, but also have said they're willing to work with lawmakers who are considering waivers of the 180-day rule.

Last week, some administrators in stricken districts said waivers are sorely needed.

"I hope the folks at the state will strike the right balance between preserving instruction and giving kids a break," said Tom Rogers, superintendent of the regional Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services, who helped organize the state visit.

One bright spot on the inspection tour was William Floyd Elementary School in Shirley.

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There, more than two dozen preschool and elementary students evacuated from Fire Island were relocated in vacant classrooms about a 30-minute bus ride from their home district. The relocation was arranged by Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES. The William Floyd district is providing relocated youngsters with use of one of its gyms.

In Fire Island's new administrative office, one William Floyd staffer had left behind a box of doughnuts and a handwritten note: "You and your homes are in my prayers."

Classrooms were freshly repainted by BOCES workers and stocked with textbooks and other materials evacuated from Fire Island by bus.

"We were lucky," said Gaby Donovan, a Fire Island teacher who joined other staffers, including Superintendent Loretta Ferraro, in packing the bus as Sandy bore down on the island. "I grabbed all my students' binders, all the laptops. And we have our students -- the most important thing."

Equipment damagedAt Long Beach High School, the inspection team saw a half-dozen cargo containers that were hit by a tidal surge at the storm's peak. The containers held science equipment -- presumably ruined -- that had been intended for the school's new labs.

Visitors also walked through a newly built middle school library and media center where soaked carpet had been removed, leaving the floor sticky with glue.

"That's what got to me," said Michael DeVito, the district's chief operating officer, as he looked around the darkened 4,500-square-foot library.

Long Beach's superintendent, David Weiss, plans Tuesday the reopenings of three buildings: the high school, East Elementary and Lindell Elementary.

The following day, Rosmarie Bovino, the Island Park schools chief, plans to reopen the district's Lincoln Orens Middle School for all students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Bovino announced the resumption of classes at a Thursday community meeting as hundreds of residents cheered inside a crowded church parish center.

To locate students in Island Park neighborhoods still without power and phones, teachers earlier in the week had fanned out, block by block, knocking on doors. Bovino herself found 15 students living in evacuation shelters in Levittown and Uniondale.

One parent in the crowd, Kristen Donovan, who teaches in a nearby district, said she welcomes the chance to send her two sons back to school.

Since Sandy struck Oct. 29, the Donovan family has heated their home with a generator, cooked on a barbecue grill and used showers at a friend's house. Still, Kristen Donovan said they plan to stick it out, as long as they see no signs of mold in their stricken home.

"Even if I did move out of town for awhile, I'd probably bring the boys back, because it's their school and they deserve it," she said.

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