The youngest students in the Hempstead school district streamed off school buses or were escorted by their parents Monday to the doors of St. Catherine of Sienna School in Franklin Square — their home for the 2018-19 academic year.
The children in prekindergarten and kindergarten, nearly 600 strong, were the last to begin classes in Long Island's public schools, displaced from their own system's Prospect School because of damage stemming from a lightning strike last month. The district is leasing the former Catholic grammar school from the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
“I was up all night,” said Shauntay Boyd, who dropped off her only son, Emilio Hewitt, 4, for his first day of pre-K. “I’m nervous, but I’m excited at the same time."
Boyd said she hadn't been certain that Emilio could start school this year after she heard about the Aug. 7 lightning strike, which set Prospect School’s roof on fire. Damage from the blaze and water used by firefighters made the building unusable this school year. Repairs are expected to be completed by mid-March.
The district has a $479,052 temporary lease for St. Catherine's through June 30, an arrangement that required approval by the state Education Department. The diocese closed the school in June 2012 because of declining enrollment.
Classes began Sept. 5 for the Hempstead system's students in first through 12th grades.
Parents outside St. Catherine's on Monday morning expressed appreciation for the arrangement.
“It's a relief,” Boyd said of the district pinpointing the school on Holzheimer Street for the students' use. “It was quick thinking.”
José Orellana carried boxes of tissues and other school supplies as he saw his daughter Hannah, 5, enter the school to begin kindergarten.
She went to pre-K last year, so Orellana said he wasn’t too nervous, just excited.
“I’m happy they found a lease,” he said of the district. “We were really worried about where we were going to go.”
As for the new building, “We will see how it goes,” he said.
Acting Superintendent Regina Armstrong said she felt “relieved” that school was starting after weeks of rushing to find a space and preparation. The district’s lease was approved by the Education Department last week, and school staff and teachers scrambled to have everything ready for Monday.
“The teachers really did an awesome job last week getting the classrooms ready, and it’s almost as if we’ve been in the building for years,” Armstrong said. “It’s amazing what can happen in such a short period of time.”
There were some kinks to work out in terms of transportation and communicating changes with parents, she said, adding, “We’ve worked that out.”
District officials had said they expected 530 kindergartners and at least 72 pre-K students at the start of school. Updated figures were not available Monday.
Both Prospect School and St. Catherine's are near heavily trafficked Hempstead Turnpike, and St. Catherine's is about 3-1/2 miles west of Prospect.
Pre-K students were picked up from their assigned bus stops Monday morning, while kindergartners were picked up at 7:30 a.m. from their local "home schools" — that is, schools they are slated to attend when they finish kindergarten, Armstrong said. Normally, the children taking buses would have gone from their home schools to Prospect School; Monday used the same process, except the students were taken to St. Catherine’s, she said.
Iqra Asim said she was nervous sending her daughter Fatima Aasim, 5, to school.
“I’m very scared because it’s my first time here,” Asim said. “I don’t know the environment inside.”
She also was worried about the lost classroom time because of the delayed start date. “Two weeks is a long time,” she said.
Armstrong said the district’s attorneys are working on a request to be sent to the state Education Department, asking officials to waive the state’s mandate for a minimum of 180 days of instruction.
Despite the change, Monday's back-to-school was a familiar scene. Students donned colorful backpacks bearing their favorite cartoon characters. Some nervously clutched their parents' hands, some shed a few tears and some were exuberant, skipping and jumping.
Matthew Rodriguez, 5, of Hempstead, said he felt “nervous” but “good” for his first day of kindergarten.
Smiling, he said, “I want to go in on my first day.”