The nightmare of temporarily sealing off the entire sixth-grade wing at Lawrence Road Middle School actually started with the fulfillment of a dream.
With bond funding approved by Uniondale taxpayers, the district was adding nine new classrooms as a second story to the existing ones in that wing.
But after the Triton Construction Company removed the roofing over the existing classrooms in preparation for adding the second level, a downpour in August sent rainwater dripping through the ceilings.
Daily classes were not affected because school had not yet begun. Remediation by Triton fixed the leaks — until the deluge of Sept. 29 and 30. On that Friday and Saturday, so much rain fell so fast that Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency that included Long Island.
“It’s been a challenge that we could not have foreseen,” Monique Darrisaw-Akil, Uniondale superintendent of schools, said.
The real story, though, isn’t the nightmare, but rather the teamwork that has enabled the school to cope without loss to student learning.
It hasn’t been easy.
“We came back on the Monday,” Oct. 2, Joyce Solarte, who teaches seventh-grade Spanish, recalled. “There was water in the sixth-grade wing. The doors were opened to let in air.”
Solarte and her students had tolerated noise and occasional smells related to the construction. But the stench after that rainstorm was different.
“Some people noticed health issues, with the smells going around,” Solarte said. “There were headaches. I haven’t heard about health problems lately, though.”
The health issues associated with the leaks were confirmed by Principal Dexter Hodge, who said that some of the staff and students reported eye and throat irritation as well as headaches.
To mitigate the problem, Hodge explained, “The construction company got industrial dehumidifiers to address the smells and the moisture conditions. They also brought portable industrial air scrubbers, which are essentially huge air purifiers.”
However, even though J.C. Broderick Associates, an environmental consulting firm, tested the air in the affected area and deemed it “acceptable,” the decision was made to seal off the sixth-grade wing.
“We wanted to err on the side of caution,” Hodge said. “In the existing classrooms, the floor tiles, all the bulletin boards, the smartboards and the window casings were removed — anything that could hold moisture and have an accumulation of mold. The whole space is being renovated.”
The expense of not only the new construction, but a complete do-over of the nine affected classrooms, is being absorbed by Triton’s insurance company, not by Uniondale taxpayers. The renovated and expanded sixth-grade wing is expected to open no later than the start of the third academic quarter, in February.
“I can’t wait for the ribbon-cutting, when we open the space and it’s clean and it’s beautiful and it’s leak-free,” Hodge said.
Meanwhile, in a school with 650 students, what was to be done with more than 200 sixth-graders?
“We met with Dr. Akil, as well as the entire central administration, including human resources,” said Lawrence Road teacher Veronica Argueta, who is a member of the school’s two-person Equity Team, meeting regularly with teachers and students to address students’ social and emotional needs. “They brought along the construction company, and we had a two-hour round table.”
“Our voices were heard, and they responded to us,” Hodge added.
“I think the most important thing is that our leaders gave strength to us by listening to our students and our staff,” Argueta said. “They heard every single aspect. Everyone came together.”
Ultimately, the Lawrence Road staff managed to combine same-subject classes without exceeding the teachers’ contractual limit on the number of students per class. Periods when a classroom was empty, when the teacher would normally plan for upcoming classes, were turned over to sixth-grade courses. Staff members gave up their lunchroom.
“I think they handled it the way they could handle it at this point, last-minute, something so unexpected,” Solarte said, referring to the combined efforts of the district’s central administration, Lawrence Road administration, teachers and parents. Although space for students and staff is cramped, she said, “You have to figure out your way to work. You do your best.”
Indeed, Hodge and Argueta agreed, the students seem to be thriving. “We keep the spirit going in this building, and we don’t let anything get us down,” said Argueta.
“The week was our Spirit Week,” Hodge said, “and I think we’ve had the most participation I’ve ever seen.” Every year, Lawrence Road promotes school spirit by engaging student council to plan dress-up days and assemblies for Spirit Week.
Hodge’s assistant principals and other members of his administrative team have continued planning activities to engage students and their families, and holding Zoom meetings with parents.
“Leadership matters,” Akil said. “Working collaboratively as a team — that’s what happened at Lawrence Road.”