One Year Later: New Jersey Schools Hit Hard, But Most Rebuild Quickly

Hurricane Sandy as seen from the International Space Station on Oct. 29, 2012.

Hurricane Sandy as seen from the International Space Station on Oct. 29, 2012.

STATE – New Jersey’s education sector, including public and private schools, colleges and universities, was one of the most seriously affected by Superstorm Sandy. Yet, of more than 2,000 schools, only five did not reopen during the school year, and only one was unable to reopen by the start of the 2013-14 school year.

All of the 2,417 elementary, middle and high schools encompassing approximately 600 school districts in New Jersey were closed before Superstorm Sandy made landfall on October 29. Sixty percent of the state’s schools were still closed a week later due to power outages, lack of heat, and/or other safety issues.

In the aftermath, school districts around the state acted quickly. Districts coordinated with each other to find room in schools or buildings that could be quickly converted for use as classrooms. Many districts took displaced students from other schools; Red Bank Primary School students held split sessions at the middle school. Less-affected districts offered to donate surplus supplies to hard-hit schools. The New Jersey School Board Association’s Adopt-a-School program received donations of school supplies and furniture for impacted districts from as far away as California.

Nearly all of the state’s colleges had reopened and resumed classes by Nov. 12, 2012, and 99 percent of primary and secondary schools were able to reopen three weeks after the storm, according to the Governor’s Office.

A survey conducted by the New Jersey School Boards Association in May 2013 revealed that 34.1 percent of schools were closed for more than 10 days, while 38.8 percent lost between five and 10 days. To help make up the lost days, 61.3 percent of schools were open the two days in November that schools are normally closed for the New Jersey Education Association teachers’ convention, which was cancelled last year. Nearly 44 percent cancelled school holidays including Dr. Martin Luther King Day and Memorial Day. Forty percent of affected schools added days at the end of the school year.

The storm caused an estimated $40 million in damage to schools statewide. FEMA authorized more than $18.6 million in eligible repairs to schools and colleges. A total of 758 separate projects were submitted.

School districts affected by the storm were eligible for FEMA Community Disaster Loans, which are designated to cover revenue shortfalls caused by disasters. On March 30, 2013, Gov. Chris Christie issued Executive Order No. 128, requiring all eligible local governments statewide to apply for Community Disaster Loans. The Union Beach School District received a $4.1 million loan to pay the salaries of teachers and other staff, and FEMA obligated $463,496.85 toward the cleanup and rebuilding of Memorial School.

In April 2013, the New Jersey Department of Education announced grant awards to assist school communities recovering from the effects of Superstorm Sandy. These funds, made possible through a $1.25 million grant award from the U.S. Department of Education’s Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) program, are available to districts to fund short- and long-term education services designed to restore safe learning environments for their students.

The extensive damage led to thousands of students being displaced for weeks to months at a time. Union Beach Memorial School in Monmouth County, which had been used as a shelter in the early hours of the storm, was flooded with 18 inches to 3 feet of water and filled with mud by the storm. Administrative offices next door were also damaged, and the ground floor of the school building had to be gutted, cleaned and rebuilt. More than 700 students from kindergarten through eighth grade were assigned to leased classroom space at St. Catherine’s in Middletown, Holy Family in Hazlet, Keyport schools, and the adult school in town before returning on June 3 to finish the final three weeks of the school year.

Students from Robert L. Craig Elementary School in Moonachie, Bergen County, spent the rest of 2012 at schools in Wood-Ridge, then the remainder of the school year in trailers on school grounds. Memorial Middle School students from nearby Little Ferry were relocated to Lyndhurst, where a former Catholic school building was used for temporary classrooms.

Moonachie’s Craig School and Hugh J. Boyd School in Seaside Heights reopened on Sept. 4. The Marine Academy of Science and Technology, a Monmouth County vocational school, resumed classes on Sandy Hook on Sept. 9.

Long Beach Township was one of the hardest-hit areas in New Jersey and has two of the 10 most expensive FEMA-funded school reconstruction projects, for Beach Haven Elementary School and Long Beach Island Grade School.

Beach Haven Elementary reopened on Sept. 3. The 100-year-old building suffered significant flood damage and had all of its floors and ceilings rebuilt. “There was probably one day this summer where I thought, ‘Oh no,’ but I’m pretty positive and motivating, and I believed we were going to get it done and it’s done,” Principal Eva Marie Raleigh said.

Only one school in New Jersey remains closed: Long Beach Island Grade School in Ship Bottom, Ocean County. Students are going to class at Ethel Jacobsen Elementary School in Surf City, which also hosted Beach Haven Elementary students last year. FEMA has obligated more than $706,000 toward the cost of rebuilding. Repairs are ongoing and are expected to be completed by March 2014.

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