Superintendent Karen McKeon and staff at the Long Beach Island Consolidated School district welcomed students back Monday with a rousing Hurricane Sandy singalong, which got students up and dancing, and left a few adults with tears in their eyes.
“We are very excited to have you all back,” McKeon said to the more than 200 students overflowing the Ethel A. Jacobsen School cafetorium in Surf City. “We wanted to make sure we started back with all of you in a room together.”
Donning sunglasses, the staff kicked off the singalong with “We Will Rock You,” which got students stomping their feet in time with the music. They danced to “Rock Around the Clock,” then sat respectfully as the choir sang “God Bless America” in honor of Veterans Day. Music teachers David Gross and Tim Cotov offered a preview of the upcoming holiday concert with a song that has taken on a new meaning for many displaced residents: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Schools on the island were closed for two weeks, first because of the storm, and then another week for planned days off and storm cleanup. But while students were off, McKeon and staff worked feverishly to assess damage and get school open, posting updates on the district website to keep parents informed.
The nearby Beach Haven School District was unable to open its school and is sending students to Eagleswood Township Elementary School in West Creek, starting Wednesday. Parents could start registering their children Monday, and busing will be offered from designated stops.
Long Beach Island’s school district sustained heavy damage to the bus garage and the grade school lost its heating system, which may cost more than $1 million to replace.
“The whole heating system was immersed in water and a transformer blew,” McKeon said, “We have electricians out there. There is a lot of cleanup to do.”
The district’s seven buses, a van and minibus were not damaged because McKeon moved them to the mainland on the Friday before the storm. The district has added a mainland route along Route 72 for displaced students.
“People then were saying to me, ‘Why are you doing that?’ “ she said of the bus move. “But I was just being safe.”
McKeon doesn’t know yet how long it will be before the grade school can open, but students are making do in the Jacobsen School, which normally would house students in pre-kindergarten to second grade. The district is now holding class in the library and music lessons on the stage. On Monday the New Jersey Education Association delivered bins of supplies and gift cards, and staff organized books and materials donated by other districts. The Federal Emergency Management Authority is expected to provide some trailers as temporary classroom space.
Both Beach Haven and Long Beach Island will also benefit from donor partnerships set up by the New Jersey School Boards Association. The Hidden Valley School in Marin County, California will hold an adopt-a-school fundraiser for the Long Beach Island district.
Beach Haven will get desks and equipment from The Furniture Trust in Boston, Mass. and students at the Upper Dublin Public Schools in Montgomery County, Pa., are doing a supply drive.
With no gas, lunch at the Jacobsen School this week will be cold sandwiches, vegetables and fruit. Nadine Erwin and Adriana Rojas quickly made peanut butter and tuna salad sandwiches Monday, but they hope to have hot meals back next week. The district lost all of its refrigerated food and donated the remaining boxed food for the early relief workers. But they have also received donations, and got one electric stove and a convection oven so they can do some limited cooking this week.
About 85 percent of the district’s 257 students in grades K-6 were back on Monday and McKeon expects almost all of them back by Wednesday as they return to the island, which just re-opened Saturday.
Erin Moran, 11, and her family are staying with her grandmother in Little Egg Harbor Township. The sixth-grader echoed the sentiment of many students when she said she was glad to be back to school.
“The best part is seeing my friends,” she said.
Parent Linda Middleton, who was helping out for the day, said the students needed to be back in school to get some normalcy back into their lives. She and her three children left the island for the storm to stay with family in Rockland County, New York, but her husband, a builder, stayed behind and is now part of the storm assessment team. They returned to a house with no heat or hot water.
“My husband put in an electric hot water heater so we could take showers, but we still don’t have heat,” she said of their home in North Beach Haven. “We’re using space heaters.”
But, she said, it’s still good to be home. She is thrilled that the district got one school opened rather than having to send students to Stafford Township, which was the backup plan.
“This is a familiar place to them,” she said. “It’s so much more comfortable for them here.”
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