2 weeks after Hurricane Sandy, most schools are finally back in session

By Jeanette Rundquist/The Star-Ledger

Students listen to Sean Cosgrova, an American History teacher, as they returned to classes at Mountain Lakes High School on Monday.Jerry McCrea/ The Star-Ledger

MOUNTAIN LAKES — The day began without a first period bell or a working public address system. Some classes turned into discussions on power outages or ways families coped without heat and electricity.

But by mid-morning at Mountain Lakes High School, which reopened Monday two weeks after Hurricane Sandy ripped down trees and knocked out power throughout town, the school routine was largely back to normal.

“It was brutal,” said school food service director Ron Gangel, as he grilled a pastrami and cheese sandwich — known in the school as a “Luke” — for the start of the lunch rush. For 10 days, Gangel had served as head chef of a shelter in the school, serving some 6,500 free meals to residents of Mountain Lakes and nearby towns who were without power.

While students expressed some mixed feelings — including worrying about missed classwork — most said they were glad to be back.

“I’m happy so we can be back into a routine,” said junior Olivia Savage, 16, seated at a table in the cafeteria.

By around 10 am, the school’s bells and PA system were fixed, too.

A dozen school buildings in eight New Jersey districts remain unable to open after the storm, according to the state Department of Education, sending students to class in borrowed spaces and forcing school officials to take on the job of repairing damaged buildings. But in most districts across the state, school is back in session.

About 60 percent of the state’s school districts closed when Sandy struck, shredding trees, devastating coastal communities, and leaving some 2.65 million customers without power. State education officials said almost 99 percent of roughly 600 districts, and 99.4 percent of schools, will be open today. That’s up from 82 percent of districts last Friday.

Alex Orazietti speaks about his experiences during Hurricane Sandy at Mountain Lakes High School on Monday.Jerry McCrea/ The Star-Ledger

In Keyport, school officials are still looking for students displaced by the storm — an ongoing process where homes were so damaged that families had to find other shelter. Guidance counselors are also working to meet students’ needs. Superintendent Lisa Savoia said some lost backpacks, calculators, school supplies or other necessities.

But classes resumed Monday. “We’re so glad to have everybody back,” Savoia said. “They’re hugging each other in the hallways.”

Other districts that reopened Monday included Long Beach Island and Middletown.

The storm left many districts struggling to reopen. Some, such as Cranford, updated parents every day on the status of efforts to get schools opened. The Union County community, stricken by widespread power outages, had its first day back last Friday.

Others are not there yet. Hopatcong’s high school was turned into a shelter — School Board President Cliff Lundin said it was expected to close last night — and large numbers of downed trees blocked roads in the Sussex County town. He said hopes are to open the elementary and middle schools today, although the high school may take a day longer.

“As of Saturday, two major arteries that connect our school bus garage to town were still closed,” Lundin said. “I’ve never seen a storm this bad.”

Union Beach, in Monmouth County, was one of the hardest-hit communities, where hundreds of homes were knocked off foundations or left uninhabitable. About 100 homes are simply gone, authorities said.

The single K-8 school, Memorial, was flooded with about 1 1/2 feet of water and is currently unusable.

Memorial’s 720 students will go back to class next Monday, but not in their own school. The district is one of nine in the state where children will attend school in another district or other borrowed space.

Union Beach grades 6-8 will go to school in Keyport, where most of the town’s high school students attend school, said Union Beach Superintendent Joseph Annibale. Grades K-5 will use a former parochial school in Port Monmouth, and preschoolers will go to class in school board offices.

Teachers are working to set up new classrooms, Annibale said, using blue and white when possible — Memorial School’s colors — to feel like home. Hopes are to reopen Memorial by Jan. 1.

“We have a game plan, we have a strategy,” Annibale said. “If we can do it, we’ll do it.”