January 11th, 2013
06:12 PM ET

Last New York school left closed by Superstorm Sandy re-opens

By Rose Arce, CNN

(CNN) - The very last New York school closed because of damage from Superstorm Sandy re-opened 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.

To help the Panetta family, visit this donation site. To donate to Scholars' Academy, visit scholarsnyc.com/rebuild.

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Filed under: At Home • Hurricane Sandy
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Input Welcome

    Working Draft: Re: Letter to the President

    NOTE: Your constructive input is welcome.

    We, the people are deeply concerned about the following, which we request, as we the people, your immediate attention to if at all possible. The reason that we make this immediate request is due to the very real concern for the safety, well-being, and protection from harm of mental patients of all ages, religions, nationalities, gender, race, and ethnicity, etc., and disabilities in light of the recent tragedies that has placed a huge amount of blame on autistic persons, and mandates signed by you that could be construed to violate the rights of the mentally ill and their families.

    Historically, the mentally ill have been treated poorly in this country, much like those whom the revered civil rights leaders of our great country challenged all to provide equal opportunity, education, rights, judicial access and fairness of courts, legal systems, education, schools, jobs, housing, health care, etc.. Today, we are asking you to do the same for the mentally ill and their families, communities, and society as a whole (as all could be disabled from mental illness at some point in their lives – and historically – most are).

    While the power and politics of the system within which the responsibility for mental health practices, procedures, and policies encompasses many whom benefit and thrive, many of the patients and much of society are made to suffer the greatest of burdens and sorrow because of it.

    There are many reasons why so many suffer at the hands of the current mental health system, as you may well know. It is widely considered to be a system of care that is very deeply flawed by those whom are aware of the true realities of the way things really are in the mental health system, and/or the reasons and reasoning as to why the system is so flawed. To ask the patients to suffer through not only their illness, healing, recovery, and management of their illness at the same time that they must also suffer at the hands of this deeply flawed system places an inordinately undue and unhealthy burden and suffering on not only them, but on the whole of society as well.

    President Obama, the most obvious need that is not being considered in the last few weeks national affairs, in which you have so immediately made sweeping changes to the rights bestowed upon all of this great nation of independently minded souls, was one of the deep rooted anger that exists in the USA today, be it toward the mentally ill or gun rights issues or whatever. To single either one or whatever out for discrimination in signed action that will, in essence, limit the future and rights of every single citizen of this great nation, only serves to invite further victimization, discrimination and prejudice against all deemed to be or made to be in any group of similarly classified individuals. As outlined in the laws of this land, which you have sworn to uphold, and to which your pledge we honor as you do ours, as a united 'we the people' governed under a respected and trusted unifying law of the land, we humbly ask you to reconsider your recent actions under the same wisdom you value by your honor chosen mentors, and to whom, we thoughtfully agree to their mission of freedom and equality for all.

    The restrictions you have placed on the rights of the mentally ill are a closing of the door to the rights you honor with your pledge to defend, honor, and uphold for ALL citizens of the USA. We question the possibility now allowed that many might fall prey to those whom may wish to exploit and / or harm those with disabilities and related, or as ill guided control, or weapon of discrimination and prejudicial policies, practices, and procedures against any made to fall into this category of citizens or deemed to be in this category of citizen. This is now a great burden to all, and places many at further risk of harm, discrimination and prejudice, as you could well imagine given the need for revered leaders and movements throughout the ages.

    It is hard to imagine how banning guns can be such a problem, yet forcing the banning of guns on those at the mercy of a mental health system that is not prepared to deal fairly with such power to control, discriminate, and cause harm, exploitation, nor the loss of protected rights throughout the entire system of education, judicial, employment, military, health care, mental health care, security systems and officers, society as a whole and as individuals, families, communities, churches, non-profit groups, universities, the agencies set up to regulate all that can cause mental illness in our foods, water, medicine, practices, procedures, and policies, and ALL can be and ARE AT MERCY of this type illness and treatment without legal representation and supports, and a fair and equal judicial system, that this could truly be ok.

    Therefore, we the people, request humbly and with post haste to amend to these signed actions provisions that will allow for the furthering of reasoning throughout all levels of the greatest government system put in place by the people, for the people, and for which we are all pledged to honor and protect and defend as USA citizens of this great and wonderful land of which we know, that you, our chosen leader, will be able to see the wisdom of your forefathers and revered leaders and mentors as being the only true way for our nation to be for the people, by the people. Thank you and God Bless you in your leadership and wisdom as you guide this grand nation through four more years of being a nation built on the wisdom of many.

    Sincerely and with Deepest Respect,

    'We the People', USA
    January 20, 2013

    January 21, 2013 at 7:49 am |

    I agree with Patrick Flynn, East Rockaway High School is still closed and not expected to open until next year.

    January 15, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  3. smitvict

    "Afterward, the school was looted and lost an estimated $100,000 in equipment, including a new shipment of computers and iPads." Wow, must be some kind of a neighborhood.

    January 14, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • jojo

      Should have had some armed guards.....taxpayer supported new York city police.... failed again.
      But its OK mayor majesty... let them drink soda....

      January 15, 2013 at 1:24 am |
  4. CorrectTheHeadline

    Seriously, the headline is inaccurate. The problem with that, is that some people read headlines without clicking on stories. An accurate headline is that the the last school in NY opens. The Jersey Shore and other areas are still in need of a lot money and rebuilding. Schools are still closed!!! Without clicking on the link, the public will assume that things are much better than they are, which diminishes the efforts made by those trying to promote awareness on all that needs to be done still. Change the headline.

    January 14, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
  5. Patrick Flynn

    Your headline is inaccurate. My daughter's school in Jersey City is still hosting kids from a neighboring school in Hoboken because their school has not reopened. While the text of the article states that the last New York school has reopened, you should take more care in assuring that your headlines are also accurate.

    January 14, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  6. SAB

    Ummm...this may be the last NYC school to re-open, but East Rockaway Junior/Senior High in East Rockaway, Long Island (in NY state) is still in two separate rented buildings that the students have to be bussed to as it is in another town. Many of the teachers have to go back and forth during the day to each of the buildings in order to see all of their students. There is no set date for that school to re-open.

    January 14, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • SAB


      January 14, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  7. Rev Dr Felix Nwosu

    that is a good news.

    January 14, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  8. larry5

    Since the government has no clue about how to run a rescue effort it should be put out to the private sector where people are responsible for their actions and work and live on a budget. In California when the then Governor Pete Wilson offered private sector contractors millions of dollars in bonuses for repairing catastrophic earthquake damage he saved the state billions of dollars. The private sector went to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and left no stone unturned to get the roads and utilities back on line. They were given a green light on permits and forced government agencies to respond or get run over. They forced the civil servants to do their jobs with help directly from the Governor's office. If someone in one of the government agencies was slow to respond he had someone from Wilson's office right in his face. The state looked like D-Day in WWII. I just don't see that happening after Sandy. The leadership is not there, just the politics.

    January 12, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
  9. USA

    Where is HELP when needed. 60 year old female looking for work. One of 200 million Americans unemployment ran out December 29, 2012. And unemployed. PLEASE HELP. Detroit, Michigan area. THANK YOU.

    January 12, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
  10. eric212

    Sandy had destroyed the lives of a lot of our fellow Americans but the best thing about us is we never ever give up.No matter how much crap the world throws at us we will always jump back to our feet.I'm glad to know that even the school children are filled with an unbreakable spirit.It will take a while before every one will be back on their feet but till then I believe everyone at Rockaway Peninsula will have each others back.


    January 12, 2013 at 3:05 am |
  11. eric212

    Sandy had destroyed the lives of a lot of our fellow Americans but the best thing about us is we never ever give up.No matter how much crap the world throws at us we will always jump back to our feet.I'm glad to know that even the school children are filled with an unbreakable spirit.It will take a while before every one will be back on their feet but till then I believe everyone at Rockaway Peninsula will have each others back.

    January 12, 2013 at 3:04 am |