Carmen Valdi lined up outside of PS 20 on the Lower East Side with her daughter on Monday morning, ready to return on the first day of school since Hurricane Sandy hit. Electricity came back on in Valdi's Lower East Side apartment on Friday but she still had no heat. She didn't expect the school to be any better off. "We're just coping," she told Insideschools.
But to Valdi's surprise, the school security guard welcomed Valdi and other parents and kids into a heated building.
Eight-seven percent of students showed up on Monday at the Essex Street school, said Principal James Lee. Not as good as PS 20's average 95% attendance rate but higher than the citywide attendance rate for Monday, for which the final tally was 85.2%, according to Education Department spokesperson Erin Hughes.
Lee -- whose Seward Park home still lacks heat and hot water -- greeted parents and school staff on the way into school asking: "how did you do?"
While older kids played in the playground and younger ones ate breakfast, their parents and teachers swapped survival stories in the cafeteria. School aide Phillip Rivera told a co-worker that last week he walked all the way from Queens to Avenue D to check on his mother, whom he couldn't reach because cell phones weren't working.
The children were excited to be back. "We have a lot of kids in subsidized housing so they probably have not been downstairs in a week," Lee said.
Kelly Andreala, a parent, marveled at the contrast between uptown and downtown. Andreala, who lives on 102nd street, said she wasn't sure the school would be open until she drove downtown on Sunday. "We came down here yesterday and peeked through the windows and saw there was light in the school so we figured there would be school tomorrow." The DOE said Sunday they would robocall, text and email 1.2 million parents with school news but Andreala said they never contacted her. Instead, she and other parents in the school's dual language program texted each other with updates.
Two other parents also said they were not contacted by the DOE. One of them, Raquel Pizzaro was without electricity or phone service until Friday and said she heard from a friend that PS 20 would open.
But Maris Pena, who has four kids at four different schools, obsessively checked the news and DOE website for information. She was grateful she still had half a tank of gas so she could drive her kids downtown from Harlem.
Most parents and school staff we spoke to said they did not experience any problems with traffic or public transportation. Lee said one of the school's teachers left her New Jersey house at 3 am to get to school on time and all but three teachers made it to school on Monday.
In the kitchen, the school chef logged fresh food deliveries. He arrived by car early in the morning and threw away all the food that rotted in the un-refrigerated kitchen.
Outside, another school aide, Carol Sieli, worried that she would be docked a day's pay because she couldn't work on Friday, when school staff were expected to report back to work and plan for the next week. Since the power was still off at PS 20, Lee and some staffers met at PS 333. Others, who could not be there in person, joined a conference call.
But Sieli, who lives on Essex Street, said, "I had no idea we had to come in." Like most other Lower East Siders who braved the blackout downtown, Sieli had no phone, no internet and no cell phone service.
Parent Coordinator Tracy Arrington, who also lives in the neighborhood, was waiting to find out which students were absent so she could reach out to the families and make sure they were okay.
The principal emailed us at the end of the school to report a happy return to the school's routine: "All in all, great day!" he said.