News and Speeches

Testimony of NYC Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott on Recovery: Storm-related Impact on Students and Schools

02/26/2013

Before the New York City Council Committee on Education
February 26, 2013

Good afternoon Chair Jackson, and members of the Education Committee here today. I am Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, and I am joined by Kathleen Grimm, Deputy Chancellor for Operations, Lorraine Grillo, President and CEO of the School Construction Authority, and Chief Financial Officer, Mike Tragale.

Thank you for this opportunity to discuss the impact of Hurricane Sandy on our students and schools and to also discuss the recovery efforts that followed and continue today.

Before I begin, I would like to thank the countless staff, volunteers, partners in our non-profit, private and philanthropic communities, and most importantly our students and their families for proving once again how resilient they are—our school system and our City can rise to any challenge.

Hurricane Sandy was an unprecedented and devastating event for our City. Sadly, many New Yorkers, including many of our students and families, teachers, principals and other staff were personally affected by the storm. In the hardest hit areas in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, many were evacuated or in some cases went weeks without electricity or heat. Some even lost loved ones, their homes, and all their possessions.

The Department of Education’s (DOE) response to Hurricane Sandy began even before the storm hit landfall on October 29, as our Division of School Facilities worked with the NYC Office of Emergency Management to mobilize 64 of our buildings as evacuation centers and shelters. DOE’s Office of Pupil Transportation provided buses to help evacuate NYCHA residents and DOE’s Office of SchoolFood served three meals a day for evacuees sheltering in our buildings. In addition to working with the City on shelter sites, we also worked with the City to support the operation of polling sites at our designated school buildings.

In the days after Hurricane Sandy, we faced significant challenges, not only as a City, but as a school system. All New York City public schools were closed for at least five days following the storm.

As you know, downtown Manhattan, where our central office is located, was without power for a week. We immediately identified an alternate site in Brooklyn where DOE staff would report. Additionally, we established a senior-level cross-functional response team, which met multiple times daily and was charged with identifying the universe of buildings that were severely damaged, identifying the schools and programs unable to open as a result of this damage, planning for school relocations, and communicating to schools, staff, students and their families, and the public. We also maintained ongoing communication with elected officials, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA), and other stakeholders. All of this work required high-level coordination among virtually all of our internal divisions, from our Office of SchoolFood, to our Enrollment office.

In addition, the building that houses SchoolFood, the Office of Pupil Transportation, and the Division of School Facilities, was also without power for two weeks. As a result, several automated programs, including our facilities management and bus routing system were unavailable, proving to be another challenge to overcome.

Overall, 50 school buildings were severely damaged, approximately 300 school buses were destroyed, and nearly 75,000 students in 61 schools were displaced and needed to be relocated. In those critical first few days, our goal was to ensure that our 1.1 million students had everything they needed in order to get back in the classroom safely, quickly, and with all the necessary supports in place.

On Monday, November 5, 2012, school reopened for approximately 93 percent of our 1.1 million students. Later that same week, 102 additional schools or programs opened, many in temporary locations. In the ensuing days, the School Construction Authority (SCA) and the Division of School Facilities (DSF) continued to make repairs and more schools reopened. By the week of Thanksgiving, only 19 schools or programs remained relocated, and only 10 buildings remained closed. By January 7, 2013, all schools were back in their permanent locations, with the exception of one school, where the principal requested a delayed opening in order to prepare for returning students.

This was an enormous feat and is a testament to the exemplary dedication, commitment, and hard work of countless staff.

Facilities

In many cases, facilities staff remained in their school building through the storm. In the mandatory evacuation areas, our Division of School Facilities (DSF) and the School Construction Authority (SCA) began to assess the damage to our school buildings as soon as the FDNY and NYPD allowed access to impacted areas.

In addition, DSF worked closely with our principals to ensure that all school buildings were assessed and cleared for classes to resume when they were ready. We initially identified 72 buildings with storm related damage, including flooding, boiler damage, non-working phone lines and the loss of power and heat.

Most of the damage was caused by flooding. In some cases the flooding occurred only in the basements and in some buildings the flood waters reached the first floor. Water damage included submerged boilers and electrical switches, complicating the return of power and heat to many buildings. There was also water damage to gym floors and auditoriums. Flooding and wind tipped over fuel tanks, causing oil leaks in seven buildings. As a result of environmental and health hazards in those cases, HAZMAT response was required. In some cases, heating could not be restored until abatement work was finished and many schools experienced delays because they were dependent on ConEd or LIPA for gas lines, heat and power restoration.

The Division of School Facilities and the School Construction Authority operated in around-the-clock shifts pumping thousands of gallons of water out of basements, installing 22 temporary or replacement boilers, and removing and replacing Sheetrock walls. Thanks to their tireless work, we were able to restore power and heat in 33 buildings within five days, and also reopen these schools on November 5.

Additionally, the Division of School Facilities mobilized its entire custodial workforce to clean-up impacted school buildings. Once their own buildings were cleared to open, staff traveled to buildings in the hardest hit areas to provide assistance. It should be noted that a number of our Custodian Engineers and cleaning staff lost their homes in the storm and still reported to work. They truly put the students first. Again, I want to thank them for their leadership.

Relocating Schools

When it became clear that some of our schools would not be able to open due to structural damage or lack of power, we quickly worked to locate the best alternative locations for students to report to school. We considered several factors in determining relocations, including: grade levels, available space, accessibility of the receiving school, and the distance between the relocating and receiving schools. We also consulted with principals and school leadership teams, and considered their feedback and recommendations.

Each case represented a unique challenge. We ultimately relocated 61 schools and programs in 63 existing schools.

Let me emphasize just how large a task this was: our staff was able to successfully execute a plan to relocate nearly 75,000 students in just five days. That is more students than in the entire school districts of Hartford, Connecticut, or Washington, D.C. During the weeks following the Hurricane, we heard countless stories from school leaders, staff, and parents, about the creativity, resilience, and teamwork, that was taking place at buildings where multiple schools were located in order to best support our students.

Transportation

As we relocated displaced schools, we had to determine how to meet the transportation needs of our students. As I mentioned, several of the bus companies that we contract with to transport our students suffered losses to their bus fleets. This, coupled with the inability to use our bus routing system due to the power outage at our Office of Pupil Transportation, and the relocation of many of our students, made organizing transportation particularly complicated.

Based on priority needs and the availability of buses, we used a variety of approaches to get as many students as possible to school. We provided shuttle bus service between home schools and temporary sites for elementary school students, provided MetroCards to all students in grades 7 through 12, and reimbursed families who chose to transport their children to temporary site locations through private means.

Mayor Bloomberg obtained an Executive Order from Governor Cuomo to enable the DOE to hire coach buses to supplement our yellow bus fleet. As more buses became available, we were also able to add shuttle buses for high school students. Once this Executive Order took effect, we received many referrals, including some from Speaker Christine Quinn, for coach bus vendors who provided additional shuttle service for our students. It was truly a collaborative effort.

Communication

Throughout this crisis, information was communicated through multiple channels ensuring that stakeholders were made aware of new developments as often as possible. Families and students received robo-calls and back-packed letters. E-mails to superintendents, school support teams, principals, teachers, and all staff were sent regularly. The press and the public were made aware of on-going developments through updates to our web site, social media, television and radio, ads published in newspapers, and a number of press conferences that the Mayor and I held. We also created a web-based school finder tool on our web site homepage to provide families and staff up-to-date information on the status of their schools. This tool had nearly half a million hits over the days and weeks following the Hurricane.

Academic and School Support

I would now like to share the support mechanisms that we put in place for our schools and students during this challenging time. Both relocated and host schools were provided additional resources.

We provided central guidance to principals to help them manage the transition back to their regular school schedule as effectively as possible, while making contingencies for lost school days, staff support, and accommodating relocated students.

In addition, Networks worked directly with schools to provide operational, academic, and staffing support. They conducted school readiness walk-throughs with SCA and DSF to ensure schools were ready to reopen and receive students. Additional staff was deployed on a daily basis to support the shuttle bus service to and from the relocation sites to ensure student safety.

Network leaders purchased supplies and distributed cell phones and Wi-Fi cards to schools that suffered Internet and phone outages. They also assisted schools with the inventory process to document damaged and destroyed items in accordance with FEMA guidelines.

To ensure that students had the opportunity to make up the learning time they missed due to the storm, the DOE, the UFT, and the CSA agreed to make-up days at other times during the academic year. All schools returned early from mid-winter recess and held classes Wednesday, February 20, through Friday, February 22. Elementary schools, intermediate and junior high schools, and District 75 schools will also hold full-day sessions on Tuesday, June 4, which was previously scheduled as a shortened clerical day for these schools.

Mental Health Support

Some school communities were particularly devasted by the storm. In these schools the majority of students and their families were personally affected.

Before school reopened, staff from our Office of Safety and Youth Development (OYSD) and Office of School Health (OSH) contacted organizations including the Children's Aid Society, Partnership with Children, Counseling in Schools, and Staten Island Mental Health to provide pro-bono counseling support to schools that were severely impacted by Hurricane Sandy. In partnership with these organizations, these schools were able to immediately receive on-site counselors the day that their schools reopened.

Students who were not directly affected may have also experienced emotional stress. To address the needs of all students, OYSD shared guidance, crisis intervention and trauma resources to assist all schools and Network staff in their work supporting students and families. Resources specific to parents were posted on the main DOE web site. The resources included guidance on how to speak with children about natural disasters, how to recognize signs of trauma and emotional distress, and activities to encourage students to share their feelings about the crisis.

Our Office of School Health is also working with Project Hope and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to provide additional mental health services. Project Hope is already working with 64 of our schools. As of February 1, more than 3,000 children and families had received individual and family crisis counseling or group counseling and public education sessions.

Additionally, through a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Project SERV is providing after school instructional services and mental health support services for impacted students.

We also held trainings for our school counselors, social workers and psychologists to discuss the social and emotional needs of their students. Approximately 40 schools attended the centralized workshops that were provided free of charge by the Child Mind Institute.

Funding/Donations/Budget

In the days after Hurricane Sandy, there was an incredible outpouring of support for New York City as well as our schools. Many individuals, organizations and corporations offered generous donations to our schools.

The DOE's estimated claim to FEMA is in the range of $110 million. This encompasses all personnel services, replacement of materials and equipment lost, and storm-related repairs. The process for claim submission is underway.

To date, schools have already received more than $8.7 million for Hurricane Sandy related expenses. I would also like to thank the City Council for quickly approving $200 million in emergency capital funding.

Lessons Learned

In times of crisis, New Yorkers come together to rebuild and recover. Hurricane Sandy is no different. We have learned many lessons from this storm on how to improve our system for the benefit of our 1.1 million students and their families.

We learned how vitally important school support staff, Networks and Superintendants were in helping each impacted school solve problems to reopen safely and quickly. Though many have participated in effective trainings on safety and emergency preparedness, after the hurricane we learned that we can do more to proactively train staff.

Additionally, the process of determining available space to accommodate relocated schools reinforced the already identified need to improve how we maintain information about space usage in our buildings. Our current process includes a facility survey published annually, supplemented by shared space plans submitted by building councils in co-located buildings. We are considering developing a system that will help us better identify available space in an emergency.

Looking at our physical buildings, we will make adjustments to our technical design standards for new facilities. We are investigating a variety of storm mitigation methods including flood barriers and doors, submersible equipment and flood resistant materials, and we are looking to eliminate flood risks through design choices, including the location of boilers, technology, and electrical equipment.

In closing, while all of our schools are back in their home buildings, our work related to Hurricane Sandy is far from over. We still have repairs to make in many of our buildings. There are still gymnasium floors and athletic fields to repair.

We are continuing our work with FEMA to quantify the facility repairs completed and those that still remain, and to file our claim for the materials lost as a result of the storm.

Last but not least, our principals, teachers, and staff are working continuously to ensure that student learning is not compromised. I am confident that our schools will fully recover from the impact of this unprecedented storm with the continued support of our many partners.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify and with that, we will answer any questions you may have.