The “Silver Lining”
The November 14, 2012 issue of Education Week identified the reopening of schools in the wake of a natural disaster as one of the most difficult challenges administrators encounter as they find themselves thrust into the role of crisis manager. In spite of all our preparatory classes and educational training for positions as Chief Education Officers, I contend that there are few of us who can truthfully say we felt fully prepared for the post-Sandy management responsibilities involved in drying out flooded buildings, hiring environmental experts, repairing boilers, finding scarce gasoline for school busses and restocking food supplies for cafeterias. Add to that process, the need to attend to physical and mental-health needs of staff members, students and families displaced by the storm. Yet in spite of these overwhelming obstacles, we have met the challenge as we always do – with creativity, calm determination and a sense of “we can get through this.” Charles A. Szuberla Jr., the Assistant Commissioner for School Operations in New York State very astutely noted that based on the decisions he was seeing being made regarding the recovery process, the things that make superintendents good educational leaders were making them good community leaders and serving them well in an event such as Sandy.
I can’t help but ponder where and how we learn these essential leadership skills? There most certainly was not a course in “crisis management” as part of any graduate work that I completed. Workshops and on-the-job training seem to provide the only preparation. At best, we learn from each other’s experience and events of the past. In 1993, following a series of intense snow and ice storms, the roof of the Milford Boro School, where I served as CSA, was seriously compromised, forcing an emergency evacuation of the entire school. Thanks to the cooperation of the Hunterdon County Office of Education and the local community, the entire K-8 school was relocated to a church community hall for the next six months. In less than 48 hours, every book, desk, chair and instructional supply was boxed, moved across the street, and unboxed, with students losing only one day of instruction. In retrospect, I have often wondered how as a relatively inexperienced school leader, I survived this crisis. I was in no way prepared for such an event other than knowing enough to reach out to my more experienced colleagues for support and assistance.
In the one short time since Sandy struck the New Jersey coast, most New Jersey schools are once again open and for those that are not, alternative plans are in place for educating the displaced students. This once-in-a-lifetime weather event has been met with across the board cooperation from school boards, teachers associations, community organizations and the Department of Education. Clearly, when faced with what would appear to most people to be insurmountable obstacles, the Chief Education Officers of New Jersey have been well prepared to think creatively to solve even the biggest of problems. With assistance from NJASA, and many other communication systems established for just this purpose, we have supported each other and shared our expertise. Stories of entire high school schedules being reworked to include double sessions in order to house middle school students whose building was flooded have not been uncommon. In one coastal town, the entire student population of a flooded elementary school was relocated to the neighboring town within just days of the storm. Without a doubt, the priority has been to get students back to school. In communities where homes and businesses were severely damaged or even lost, the school has become the one source of stability in the lives of many children. It is the resumption of daily routine that school provides that will help all of New Jersey recover from the historical storm known as Sandy.
Living in Avalon, only two houses from the bay and two short blocks from the beach, I am no stranger to coastal storms and the havoc they can bring to barrier island communities. I can still see the images of houses left stranded in the middle of the marshes following the 1962 Nor’easter, that everyone said was the storm of the century, so when ordered to evacuate, I don’t hesitate to leave the island. During Sandy, I spent four days in a hotel on the mainland, waiting for the word to return to 7 Mile Island. With power out at the hotel, we had little news regarding the impact of the storm and could only sit and wait and pray. Our reentry to the island was bittersweet. The tidal flooding crested at 9.6 feet above low water, thankfully leaving only two feet of water in our garage, just missing coming into our home. Surprisingly my home had power, water, heat, cable TV and even Internet access. After a couple of days of scrubbing foundation cinderblock and raking up yard debris, there were few signs that the storm had even happened. I could only sit and watch the pictures of total devastation on the islands just to my north, often feeling guilty for being spared the brunt of the storm.
The headline in the Atlantic City Press on the Monday after Thanksgiving read “Holiday decorating delayed by cleanup: Some wondering when it will begin to look a lot like Christmas in region”. The stark reality of the 2012 holiday season is that as a result of Hurricane Sandy, many of us have been so busy focusing on getting our schools and lives back to normal, that we find we have little time or energy to expend on the traditional holiday preparations. When you are focused on restoring the essentials of daily life - electricity, heat, working fire alarms, sewage and food – it seems trivial, almost disrespectful of those who lost their homes in the storm, to be thinking about wreaths, twinkle lights and Santas. Flooded buildings and school busses, widespread power outages and disabled communication systems certainly have presented long-term challenges that must take priority over even the most sacred societal traditions.
Speaking strictly for myself, I think that the distraction from traditional holiday preparations and decorating may very well be the “silver lining” to the devastation that has recently beset our state. One of the items destroyed when my garage flooded was our artificial Christmas tree, yet I feel no urgency to replace it. In the past month, I have quickly come to realize that you don’t need a formal Thanksgiving Holiday as the impetus to give thanks, or garland, tinsel and a Christmas tree to get into the holiday spirit. What you do need is a sense of gratitude for the blessings you do have and a willingness to share your good fortune, however small, with those who have less. My wish for all of the NJASA membership is if you can, give to those who are wanting. If you want, may you benefit from those who can give.
NJASA President Donna B. Van Horn, Ed.D.