With the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway on winter break until Jan. 28, school officials are assessing when, or if, classes can resume at the elementary school this academic year after a Jan. 10 fire destroyed part of the building.
The early-morning blaze began in a second-floor STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab, resulting in water and smoke damage to other parts of the school. Cleanup was underway last week. The Nassau County fire marshal determined that the fire was accidental.
Before the break, nearly 480 HAFTR elementary students were moved to three locations. Kindergarten classes were shifted to HAFTR Middle School, also part of the Lawrence campus; first- and second-grade students went to the Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence; and the third- and fourth-graders were moved to the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst in Cedarhurst.
“It’s a mess. Everything close to the fire has to be inspected and cleaned,” said Yaron Kornblum, president of HAFTR’s board. “We sent the books out to be repaired and removed soot from rooms. The books may have to be replaced.”
Though the fire was contained to the server room and computer lab, the smoke and water damage was extensive, school officials said. All of the air-conditioning units and duct work throughout the Washington Avenue building will have to be replaced. Several classrooms, the school library and the computer room will have to be rebuilt, and ceiling tiles must be replaced.
“We had double shifts going 24 hours, with 50 people doing the cleanup,” said Neil Wiener, chairman of HAFTR’s board of directors. “Typically, with an insurance company, you are out of the building for a length time,” he added, referring to insurance adjustors taking time to survey the damage.
Kornblum and Wiener said the break will offer school officials an opportunity to develop a longer-term plan detailing where students will attend classes for the remainder of the school year, which will end June 19. “The first week, no one was in the building. Now everyone is the on scene,” Kornblum said. “We are still assessing and talking to people.”
HAFTR Executive Director Ari Solomon said the teachers and administrators have done an excellent job of keeping elementary school classes going, despite the loss of the building. “Four walls don’t make an educational institution,” he said. “The kids remain engaged in the educational curriculum.”
In looking into what could be done to find a longer-term temporary home, HAFTR officials contacted the Lawrence School District, which is no stranger to moving students out of a damaged building. After Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, district officials reopened the Cedarhurst high school in November, but in January 2013 closed it when officials discovered that electrical wires were corroding because of saltwater intrusion. The roughly 900-student high school was split between the middle school and the Number Five School.
“That’s the first thing I thought of was Hurricane Sandy,” said Dr. Ann Pedersen, who was Lawrence’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at that time and is now superintendent. “We have the top floor of the Number Four School to house some people.”
Kornblum said that he appreciated the community’s help, from the fire departments that responded to the blaze to 4th Precinct police, HAFTR’s administrators and parents, and the local organizations and institutions that offered assistance.
Wiener stressed that HAFTR officials will do what is best for the students. “We are concerned most about the safety and welfare of the children,” he said.