First day of school is a washout

Onteora Central School District Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill, who began her employment with the district in January, enters her first full school year under extraordinary circumstances. Always an anxious time, this was exceptionally challenging due to the devastation left behind by Tropical Storm Irene. Determined for the whole district to open on time, administrators pressured state officials and New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG), the company that powers Phoenicia Elementary, to restore power to the only school left in the dark and open by Wednesday, September 7. Phoenicia school was powered; teachers and staff readied it over the weekend. But a new storm system brought new floods, closures to already fragile roads and bridges and evacuations were called for low-lying areas on the western end of the district. Thus, the Onteora district was shut on the first day of school, using the first of its seven scheduled “snow days.”

McGill was at Central Office by 5 a.m. and in a phone interview said that a two-hour delay was initially called because of downed trees on power lines. Coordinated efforts were brought together with Buildings and Grounds manager Jared Mance, Shandaken town supervisor Rob Stanley, Shandaken Highway superintendent Eric Hoffmeister, Ulster County Under sheriff Frank Faluotico and Ulster County Emergency Management Director Art Snyder. “Based upon their advice we closed,” McGill said. Phoenicia school has a plan implemented that would send children to other schools in the event of an isolated closure such as a power outage or small stream flooding. McGill said this was different. “Half of the district is cut off (because of flooding and hazardous roads), but this is not just Phoenicia’s problem, we were afraid kids from throughout the district might get stuck because of the Esopus rising and we couldn’t bring them home.” She understands if parents were disappointed especially since the first day of school is always a special time, but also hopes parents will understand that safety for the children is essential. In 2010/2011 school year, there was an excessive overflow of snow days used, canceling spring break. For 2011/2012 there are now six snow days left — for anyone counting.


Tropical storm Irene planning…

Four days after Irene, employees of the district spent three days in staff development and conferences; the first on Thursday September 1 began with what to expect following a disaster. McGill began by stating that she was lucky to have the opportunity to work and live in such a beautiful area. But she joked, “No one mentioned the earthquakes, no one mentioned the hurricanes — I don’t remember an interview question when someone asked, ‘what would you do if there was a hurricane that devastated people right before the very start of school?’” This was new territory for nearly everyone. “But I was floored by the babbling brooks and the call of the wild, not knowing that it was going to be man vs. wild…” She added, all things considered, she was grateful to be working in the district. “Together we care, we are passionate, and we never give in and we never give up, we just give and that’s what I found about this community and that is awesome,” McGill said, “You can’t say that about every place.”


Many staff at the time lacked power in their homes, but all were in good spirits, nervous about the approaching first day of school. Staff sought guidance when it came to students dealing with the storm aftermath whose houses and contents may have been destroyed. How can a teacher handle the emotional toll this is going to take? In a separate interview McGill said they clearly know of five families displaced by the storm, but “we won’t know for sure until the first day of school.” There are also three employees who have lost homes and the district is aware of others unsure if they can eventually return to their homes.

Employees were given the opportunity that day to use the Middle/High school showers and McGill announce that Middle/High school students could shower after school and late buses could transport them home. Towels, soap and shampoo would be supplied. Donations of school supplies would be needed. McGill asked teachers to look out for stressed children and pay close attention to students who have lost homes. “Communication is key,” she said, “we’ve got to look out for each other, we need to get to people who can help people, we need to look for sad children and you are going to be the eyes and the ears of the reality check.”

Once all tropical storm related discussions wrapped up McGill dived into the schedule of the day. First up was honoring senior employees who have been with the district over 25 years. In lieu of flowers she presented candles as a gift. “As you stand up we have these candles,” McGill said, “we were going to order flowers, but there are no flowers anywhere, so you are getting candles which are probably more functional at this point.”++