Six months to the day after being displaced by Hurricane Sandy, more than 600 East Rockaway Junior/Senior High School students returned to their own digs on Ocean Avenue, amid “Welcome Home” banners, high-fives and lots of smiles and laughter.
“It feels amazing to be back!” said Rebecca Ingentino. “It’s overwhelming, especially as a senior. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
The students, who had attended classes at two unused elementary schools in Baldwin since the week after the storm, trickled in at 9:45 a.m. on Monday for a delayed opening and a shortened school day, hugging one another, members of the staff and even their lockers. Senior Billy Humes followed through on his promise to the Herald and kissed the floor. “Yes! I am so happy to be home!” he exclaimed.
Even though rain forced the cancellation of an outdoor ribbon-cutting ceremony, Superintendent Roseanne Melucci, members of the Board of Education, teachers, aides, office workers and custodians cheered for the students as they arrived, all wearing “Rock the Return” T-shirts made for the occasion.
“We’re finally here,” said Melucci. “It’s been a long, difficult road, but we never gave up … we were never going to give in. Everyone hustled to get back here. I’m so proud of our kids and staff for what they had to go though.”
The high school building, which is just yards from Mill River, was inundated with floodwater and debris from Sandy, which caused $10 million worth of damage to its infrastructure. The large gymnasium and the kitchen are still closed.
The administration held a special assembly for the students before they began their day, and thanked them and the school staff.
“What I hope this has taught you is that who you as students, or people, are [is defined by] how well you were able to overcome adversity, and what you do in the face of challenges,” said Principal Joe Spero, who came to the school last September, after longtime Principal Bill Fortgang retired. “You all have aced that test. The words ‘thank you’ are going to be said quite a bit — to you as students, to your teachers, who dedicated countless hours to transfer you kids to and from two buildings, and who made you feel comfortable to focus on learning.”