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Emotional reopening of E. Rockaway Sandy-damaged school

East Rockaway High School students celebrate their return

East Rockaway High School students celebrate their return to school for the first time since superstorm Sandy. (April 29, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Art teacher John Bishop was welcoming students back to East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School when he stepped away from the podium and started to weep.

Bishop's sobs soon were echoed by dozens of students in the rebuilt auditorium, where they gathered Monday to celebrate the school's reopening exactly six months after superstorm Sandy shuttered the building.

It was one of many emotional moments in a day that students and faculty said served as a point of pride for the South Shore community, where many residents also still are rebuilding from the storm. About 100 families remain in temporary housing because of Sandy, Superintendent Roseanne Melucci said.

"It has been a very rough six months," said senior class valedictorian Lindsay Dower, 18, whose house was uninhabitable for a few weeks. "It was very upsetting."

Bishop, who is retiring after 35 years of teaching in East Rockaway and also attended the school as a student, said the day was bittersweet for seniors, who have 30 class days left before graduation.

"It's a very, very strong bond," Bishop said.

The school suffered $10 million in damage from the storm. As much as 5 feet of floodwater heavily damaged two gyms, the kitchen, auditorium, band room, chorus room and tech building. The water rose up to the level of the auditorium stage and deposited enough sand in the building that visitors after the storm left footprints.

Students had to attend class in two Baldwin schools that had been vacant.

During Monday's assembly, some students broke into a chant of "No more Shubie," in reference to Shubert Elementary, one of the schools that housed them during reconstruction. The other was Milburn Elementary.

Senior Gianna Cilluffo said the transition to attending class in Baldwin was difficult. Her high school commute -- a 10-minute walk that began at about 7:45 a.m. -- changed to a 6:45 a.m. bus, she said.

But, Cilluffo said, students were able to adjust. She said she has fond memories of playing with puppets, left behind at Shubert, during biology class.

"We're finally home," Cilluffo said, smiling with relief as classmates streamed out of the auditorium. Her peers, she said, had nicknamed cramped Shubert Elementary "the Shu-box."

The high school, which has about 600 students from grades 7 to 12, welcomed back students at 10 a.m. Weather again forced a change of plans; a ribbon-cutting ceremony was scrapped because of morning rain.

The school's kitchen and large gymnasium are still being repaired, but the school is otherwise fully operational, faculty said.

Spirits were high as faculty members stood in hallways clapping while returning students exchanged hugs and greetings.

Principal Joe Spero was among them, and like almost every faculty member and student, he was wearing a black T-shirt with orange letters that read: ROCK THE RETURN.

"It has been a very long road," Spero said, "but we're happy to be here celebrating this day."

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