Friday, November 9, 2012

State of the Schools: Post Sandy

In trying times, you often feel a greater sense of community.  And that is something that we certainly do not lack, here in the Ville.  We have no roadmap for handling these situations.  As we reflect during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, there are so many people that were instrumental in the reopening of schools.  It was not a single effort. All stakeholders worked hand-in-hand, together, to assist in relief and the reopening efforts.  Last week, Bryan Boyce, Sal Gambino and other staff members reported to work, sacrificing their families and themselves to assist in the relief and reopening efforts.

Our Technology Department proactively shut down our servers in anticipation of the storm so that we would not lose information and data.  I am happy to report that our buildings are in excellent shape and weathered the elements without major damage.  Van Derveer Elementary School was the only school that lost power.

The middle school served as a shelter for the first day of the storm.  Sal Gambino and his crew worked with volunteers as they prepared for evacuated citizens.  We were in constant communication with Mayor Gallagher, Sergeant Stitely and the OEM for status updates and recommendations.  We organized several conference calls for our district principals and emergency management team members to keep them apprised of the situation.  After realizing that we were not reaching a section of our community through the Honeywell Instant Alerts due to power outages, we posted signs at each building.  Sheila Deck, a secretary at SHS, and Ronnie Bommarito (along with his family) stayed late into the evening to post on our digital sign at SHS.  We utilized the district website and social media (Twitter and Facebook) as avenues for communication.  The Borough posted our information on their digital sign and website.  Finally, Somerville Police vehicles traveled the area announcing that school was closed through their vehicles.  Constant communication was the key to success here!

VDV restored power and district crews quickly assisted in disposing of spoiled food and working with the County Health Department to get the cafeteria restored.  Our biggest hurdle was the electrical lines and poles that were grounded on Davenport Street in front of SHS.

Thanks to the efforts of the Office of Emergency Management, Mayor Gallagher (who was on the phone late in the evening with PSE&G) and even Dr. Kathleen Serafino, the Executive County Superintendent (who put pressure on state officials), the electric lines were affixed to newly installed poles (while non-electric lines still remain on the ground). This assisted the OEM in giving us the recommendation to reopen schools!

Now, we have warm buildings stocked with food and permission to open!  It’s one thing to open a building and its another thing to staff it with educators to provide high quality instruction.  For this to happen, Melissa McCooley and our principals (Susan Haynes, Georgette Boulegeris, Corey Jones, and Katie Neary) surveyed all staff members through a broadcast on Honeywell Instant alerts and determined the feasibility of opening.  After we determined our staffing needs, we called in one additional substitute for each building to further ensure coverage.  As it turns out, the district had above average attendance despite staff power outages.

The Executive Cabinet hosted a full day meeting on Monday with Sal Gambino at our District Command Post, where we blew up the OEM’s map of hazardous areas and charted course to assign personnel with a focus on safety, providing a safe access to and from school.

Jason Solomon posted the maps online, with links to photos from Sal Gambino.  We encouraged school families to either car pool or develop safe walking routes for their children.  

It was a joint effort from administrators, teachers, instructional assistants, secretaries, custodial/maintenance, technology crew, volunteers, parents and community members. We had teams of employees (Claudia Allatt, Nicholas Diaz, Lisa Ehlbeck, Sal Gambino, Robert Reavey, Patty Willenbrock, Kermit Weeast and me) dispersed amongst the community at identified areas of concern with pocket warmers to provide a friendly smile to students and families that were walking to school.  Several secretaries, including Antonette D'Angelo, Marietta Gamba, Ana Raymondi, Joni Thorne and Carol Werner reported on Monday to prepare for the reopening efforts.  One parent reported a downed wire and we immediately posted an employee, with a district vehicle, at the location.  Luke McGrath assisted at the high school, Jason Solomon at the middle school and Melissa McCooley at Van Derveer.  Our principals greeted staff members at the door with coffee, courtesy of Mashios.  The principals also reminded students of hazards associated with wires and downed poles.

I’m happy to report that we opened without any incidents!  Our dismissal at the high school, while certainly a bit hectic, ran smoother than some of our regular days.  Because, as recommended by Sergeant Stitley, we used the closing of Davenport Street to our advantage and lined the buses in three rows with assistance from Bob Cline, Branchburg Transportation Director and Luke McGrath.  Since the road was closed, we didn’t have to worry about children stepping out into traffic between buses or crossing the crosswalk.  

Against all odds, we were able to open school, providing our school community with one step closer to normalcy.  We need your continued assistance to the community during these difficult times.  Please treat EVERY wire as a dangerous wire. Teach, remind, and reteach your children about safety hazards associated with wires and downed poles.  We still have portions of our community without electric.  The electrical company may begin testing and wires that are inactive may “become” active.

While this may be a story of ongoing success, we realize that many of you and your loved ones are still without power, heat, fuel and/or have experienced devastation.  Two of our school community members have lost their homes, one in Somerville and one in Branchburg.  On behalf of our school community, I have reached out to the families and offered our assistance.  We have relief efforts on the way for those families.  If you are having trouble and need assistance, I urge you to contact me personally at 908-218-4101.  Please know that the school community is also here to help.  We are going to do the best we can to move forward.  Storms make the roots of at tree grow deeper.  Sandy will not bring down the Ville.

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