Hurricane Sandy has uprooted families across Long Island, forcing them to not only leave their homes but also their school districts.
Within the Lynbrook School District alone, some of its students, especially those living closer to the water in East Rockaway, have been scattered across the region as they stay with friends and family in areas that were not hit as hard by the hurricane. At the same time, some Lynbrook School District residents have also opened up their doors to families who were displaced from communities that were devastated.
These types of migrations both into and out of the district in the wake of Sandy has these affected families wondering what will happen to their children's education. But at a packed, special Board of Education meeting Thursday night, Lynbrook school officials were able to provide some answers.
For direction, school districts are turning to the McKinney-Vento Act (see attached PDF), a federal law that addresses the educational needs of homeless children.
"The act is designed to protect and promote continuity of instruction for students who find themselves either transferring out of [or into] the district due to displacement," explained Jonathan Klomp, Lynbrook's administrator for personnel and student support services.
The law not only requires all public schools to expeditiously enroll displaced students who are temporarily living within their district, but it also mandates that they provide transportation to any of their current students who are being sheltered elsewhere but wish to continue their education in their "home district."
As of Thursday, the Lynbrook school district had already enrolled nine new students who had been displaced from other areas and was distributing forms at the meeting to other families. Anyone who still needs to register must go to the administration building on Atlantic Avenue. (The district said that if it does get a larger influx of students, it will have to evaluate the student-teacher ratio and consider hiring additional staff.)
Unlike a traditional registration though, which requires residents to present a lengthy list of documentation to prove their residency, the law mandates that districts enroll students first and then follow-up with the parent or guardian to receive the necessary forms. For affected families, documents such as birth certificates may have been ruined when their homes suffered extreme flooding from Sandy, Klomp explained.
The law, however, does give districts some leeway when it comes to how they must provide transportation for students who have been displaced to other areas but whose families want them to continue their education in the same school they were in before they were relocated. It states that districts can provide the most "cost-effective" means of getting these students to their schools.
"[It] does not necessarily mean a bus," the district's attorney, Florence Frazer, told one Lynbrook mother whose family has been staying with relatives on the North Shore since Hurricane Sandy forced them to leave their home. "It may mean, if it's convenient for you, the school district can provide mileage reimbursement for a parent or somebody who wants to transport the child here."
In response, the parent suggested the school districts faciliate an exhange of contact information among displaced families so they could arrange car pools.
If the family was unable to drive the child to school, Frazer said another option is paying for public bus passes for displaced students and, especially in the case of younger kids, their guardians to accompany them. However, she admitted, this route might "not be practical" for some families or even possible in cases where students need to travel between the north and south shores, because public transportation is very limited.
School district liaisons across Long Island will need to coordinate with one another in the next few days and weeks to determine the best ways to accommodate displaced students, she explained.
"The most important thing is getting the student to school," Frazer added. "If the only way to get that child here is to send a bus then the school district would have to send a bus."
Adding to the challenges that school districts are facing in dealing with the displacements is that there is a school bus shortage as many, including 150 vehicles owned by Courtesy Bus Company, were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
"We have to wait to see how many students are affected, where those students are located and then, we'll be better equipped to make a decision on what might be the best method of transportation," Lynbrook Board of Education President Cathy Papandrew said. "Whatever it is, we are going to work with the families to get the students here to school."