The very last New York school closed because of damage from Superstorm Sandy reopened Friday, marking the end of a period that displaced 73,000 students.
The 1,100 students of Scholars' Academy walked into the building wearing blue T-shirts that said "Scholars' Strong" on the front and "Rockaway Resilient" on the back. The Rockaway Peninsula school is surrounded by water from the ocean and bay and located near a sewage treatment plant. Water from all three met on October 29 as the storm engulfed the school's first floor, leaving it unusable.
Many students suffered significant damage to their homes and continue to live in temporary housing. Even the school's principal, Brian O'Connell, lives in a hotel provided by FEMA.
"The way you get through this is to look at the positives of it," O'Connell said. "You can say, 'Isn't this an adventure to look at the opportunity to be with my family in one room spending time together...we gained a deeper closeness.'
"Through commitment to collaboration, hard work, organization and communication, our school community rallied to quell the ripples of Hurricane Sandy's aftermath for our students."
O'Connell told his students Friday that 60% of students and 30% of staff were displaced or homeless as a result of the storm, and some still are. One of his students, Ryan Panetta, shares a temporary one-bedroom apartment with his parents and three siblings about an hour away from school. He has been waking up before 6 a.m. to commute to a bus stop, where he got a ride to his temporary school. After school, he traveled to his former home, a shell of what it once was, to help his father rebuild. It was dark when he left his temporary home and dark when he returned.
"A lot of times I had to wake him up and say, 'We're at your bus stop and now.' He has definitely been tired, it's hard getting him up in the morning. We'd go back to sleep with him still doing his homework," Karen Panetta said of her 13-year-old son.
Friday morning, a bus took him to his old school, cutting out a major step in a long commute.
"He was very excited," Panetta said. "It means so much to him. He was just happy to get back into the normal swing of things in one way."
The rest of his life won't stabilize for some time. After months of repairs, the Panetta's home has been declared irreparable and will be demolished. At $3,100 per month, the temporary apartment has become too costly. They plan to rent an apartment near their old home, and hope to raise enough money to rebuild.
Karen Panetta worries about how the displacement will affect her son's love of learning. Teachers stuck with their lesson plans, she said, but classes were much larger. Scholars' attended classes in cafeterias, auditoriums and hallways.
"I'm glad he is where he belongs now," Panetta said.
About 1,750 schools were damaged by the storm, although many were able to reopen quickly. Nine schools reopened after the holiday break, sending 5,400 students back to schools they had not seen since the day of the storm. Two schools have reopened but will have some students attending classes in nearby facilities until later this year.
The night of the storm, Scholars' Academy surveillance cameras captured water pouring in, overwhelming the basement boiler, electrical grids and the entire first floor. Afterward, the school was looted and lost an estimated $100,000 in equipment, including a new shipment of computers and iPads.
Scholars' Academy was so badly damaged that it needed new floors, walls and furniture. Band instruments and sports equipment were soiled with sewage, computers were submerged and office equipment destroyed. For months, O'Connell walked the halls watching his school ripped down to a skeleton.
The city allocated $200 million to make repairs to schools like Scholars' Academy and the schools have been teeming with construction crews ever since. O'Connell marveled at how quickly the infrastructure was repaired, but all the supplies, books, uniforms, instrument, computers and other perks are lost.
"Time will tell what the true cost of this storm will be to our facility, our supplies, our equipment, and our students' test scores," O'Connell told them. "Still, with all of the disruption, we have learned that the most important thing to have is community and one another."
Friday morning, the principal cut a thick, red ribbon while students cheered. O'Connell said he hoped the experience would remind them of what's important in life.
"There is going to be a time when we look back on this and say 'Wasn't that great?'" O'Connell said.