NJ students displaced by Hurricane Ida resume in-person classes inside church walls

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Cresskill Public Schools senior Tyler Song could sum up his high school experience in one word: “weird.”

“The majority of my high school years were either online, school-free, things like that,” he told NJ Advance Media.

Song is one of about 1,000 Cresskill Middle/High School students who have had unusual years in recent years. After spending the majority of the previous school year learning remotely at home due to the COVID pandemic, these students had hopes of a normal school year again dashed when Tropical Storm Ida tore through their middle and high school. on September 1, causing damage equal to half of the district’s annual operating budget.

For the next five and a half months, Song and his peers resumed distance learning, attending school in person only once a week at a local parochial institution. That is, until two weeks ago, when Cresskill middle and high school students finally returned to in-person classes on a regular basis. This time inside a Presbyterian church.

“It’s still not ideal, obviously… But we have students and staff in a building together, learning, and that’s what it’s all about,” Superintendent Michael Burke told NJ Advance Media. Thursday at Chodae Community Church in Northvale, the new home of Cresskill Middle and High School – at least for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year.

Due to flood damage to their school, Cresskill Middle and High School students are now attending classes at Chodae Community Church in Northvale. Students began classes there in February and a banner welcomes them to the building.Amanda Brown | For NJ Advance Med

Chodae Community Church on Rockland Avenue in Northvale is no ordinary church building. Built in 2018, the 80,000 square foot building serves as the church for the Mosaic Christian Fellowship and the Chodae Joint Education Ministries. Mosaic is a separate ministry that has an interdependent relationship with the Chodae Community Church. Mosaic and Chodae together host 900 to 1,000 children and student ministries at its Rockland Avenue building on weekends, Mosaic senior pastor Dave Park said.

“But there’s a lot of time during the week where it wasn’t used,” he added.

When Mosaic was designing the building, Pastor Park said “the vision was that we could use this space to bless the surrounding areas.” Upon hearing of the plight of Cresskill Middle and High School, which had been unable to find space large enough to accommodate its displaced student body and staff, Pastor Park said, “We jumped on opportunity to provide them with a facility”.

All they ask is that Cresskill Public Schools pay utility fees during its occupation. It does not charge district rent.

“Obviously it’s a school and we don’t want to proselytize or anything like that, but we hope it shows there’s a real kindness there,” Park said.

Before welcoming students on February 16, Mosaic and Chodae invited members of the Cresskill Middle and High School community to join them after a Sunday service for a joint prayer session. This gesture marked the beginning of a unique new relationship between secular and non-secular communities.

Chodae and Mosaic are allowing Cresskill Middle and High Schools to operate from the Rockland Avenue building from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday, for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year. Students learn remotely on Fridays. The school day is shortened to accommodate a tight bus schedule, Burke explained.

The district operates 15 buses with help from neighboring districts, the director said. For example, Leonia Public School buses run their own local routes before picking up Cresskill students and dropping them off at Chodae Community Church around 8:30 a.m., Monday through Thursday. Buses then return in the afternoon and must complete their Cresskill routes before returning to their home neighborhoods to handle these drop-offs as well.

Cresskill Middle and High School students switch locations for classes.

Due to flood damage to their school, Cresskill Middle and High School students are now attending classes at Chodae Community Church in Northvale. Physics teacher Zoheab Quraishi (standing center) talks to his class in one of the building’s classroom spaces. Amanda Brown | For NJ Advance Med

In addition to finding accommodations for transportation to the temporary learning site, Burke said the district needs to reinvent some of the spaces within Chodae. The building is designed as a hub and spokes, with a large open space called “Plaza” at its center where students gather during free time and lunch. The entrances to the other wings of the building start from the “Plaza” and lead to various rooms, large and small. Barriers have been erected in some of the largest rooms in the building, so that different classes can take place simultaneously – physics and Spanish are taught in one room, for example, separated by a dividing wall. It can admittedly be distracting and noisy, said parents, students and even administrators interviewed by NJ Advance Media.

“It’s not perfect, we have limits. But we’re expanding things as much as we can,” Principal John Massaro said.

Although it takes a little longer to get to school, and although the space can be “very noisy at times”, seventh-grade student Olivia Kim said being able to attend classes regularly at the Chodae Community Church makes all the difference.

“I made a lot of new friends just in the two weeks we had,” Kim said. “It’s a great opportunity to socialize. And online, even though you can chat with your friends, you can’t see them in person, so that’s really different.

District officials still hope to safely reopen Cresskill Middle/High School in the fall, waiving any supply chain delays. In a statement to NJ Advance Media, Dawn Delasandro, district business administrator, said the district’s new appliances and boilers are expected to be installed in May.

“Construction for reconstruction/restoration is underway in our efforts to reopen the building in September,” Delasandro said.

Following the approval of a $21.6 million bond in January, the district was finally able to place purchase orders on February 14 for the large budget items needed to rebuild its school. Superintendent Burke said the district wanted to order the supplies sooner, but its hands were tied by financial constraints and red tape.

Damage in Cresskill was astronomical, estimated at more than $21 million, but the district’s flood insurance capped at just $2 million, Burke said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is expected to reimburse up to 75% of project costs, but the agency operates on a reimbursement basis, which means Cresskill Public Schools must pay for the cost of repairs ( exhausting its existing funds) before seeing a penny of federal funding. This quagmire revealed that New Jersey lacked a mechanism to allow for emergency funding in extreme circumstances like this, Burke said.

“Our situation will lead to a change in the law,” he said.

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jackie roman can be attached to [email protected].


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