Hurricanes Maria and Irma caused massive damage and destruction to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands last month. It’s displaced countless families as both U.S. territories start the slow rebuilding process, forcing many to relocate. And some of them already are ending up right here in New York City.
While those families are here, they’ll be welcome in the city’s public school system, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools chancellor Carmen Fariña said — including quite possibly some of the public schools here in the northwest Bronx.
“We want to be clear that New York City’s public schools are open to students in need,” the two said in a joint statement. And they’ll be admitted even without documentation like a birth certificate, since a lot of that could have been lost in the “floods and chaos.”
Councilman Andrew Cohen, who has railed against plans to move previously homeless families into a new transitional shelter planned for 5731 Broadway because of how it might affect an already overcrowded P.S. 7 Milton Fein School, said admitting kids from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico was something he could, in fact, support.
“There is a fundamental difference between the city proactively creating the problem and just being a natural disaster,” Cohen said.
It’s not clear how many school-aged children might end up at 5731 Broadway, but there are 83 units that will be filled, primarily by families.
The education department wouldn’t say how many open seats were available in local schools, and how many displaced students would be welcomed. But Fariña and de Blasio made it clear they would indeed be welcome.
While the displacement is welcome, Cohen still warns the city is not taking a proactive approach to ensure there is enough room in local schools before approving local development, or suddenly turning what was touted as market-rate apartments at 5731 Broadway for single people and couples into something primarily for families.
“It’s not enough to build an apartment for someone,” Cohen said. “You have to build a school seat for someone. You have to build all of the resources that someone is going to need if you are going to provide shelter.”
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz also expressed concerns about the more than 80 families coming to 5731 Broadway, but echoed Cohen in how taking care of storm refugees was quite different from the homeless controversy.
“I’ve never said that the kids in the transitional housing should (not) be placed in local schools,” Dinowitz said. “What I’ve said is they are building the transitional housing in a location where at least one of the schools is already severely overcrowded.”
Dinowitz also has taken a different position than what he has been accused of in the past, saying he has no issue with the displaced students coming to city schools despite lack of documentation. At least for now.
“I think at some point, in the future, if they are to be here longer term, we would probably need to see some type of proof as to where they are going to be living,” Dinowitz said.
The Assemblyman is caught up in a lawsuit with Manny Verdi, the estranged assistant principal at P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil, who accused Dinowitz’s staff of interfering in the school’s registration process, demanding a third form of identification from families. Verdi’s attorney Ezra Glaser said that demand violated the privacy rights of 100 children and families at the time.
The claim was backed by an education department internal investigation by now-retired superintendent Melodie Mashel who concluded P.S. 24 allowed “non-school personnel” to take part in the process.
Dinowitz doesn’t deny his staff member was present, but insisted last year she was invited to be a part of the registration process not as a representative of his office, but instead as a former P.S. 24 parent and longtime activist with parent associations.
A judge recently dismissed some portions of Verdi’s lawsuit against the education department and Dinowitz. However, one key element of the case — the alleged defamation by Dinowitz — will be allowed to proceed, Judge Arlene Bluth ruled.
For now, however, the Assemblyman is focused on what New York can do to help these displaced families from the ravaged Caribbean islands.
“This is a humanitarian disaster of unheard of proportions, and I think that we have to do our share to deal with this,” Dinowitz said. “That includes the children who may have been displaced or may be living here temporarily.”