Channel Alvarez clutched a bouquet of pink carnations at a makeshift memorial on the fence between her high school and the high-rise building in the Bronx, where a fire killed 17 people, including one of her classmates, Seydou Toure.
Channel, a student of the eighth grader at MS 391, pointed to his picture surrounded by colorful flowers. She couldn’t shake the thought that a 12-year-old Seyda was so close to her age.
“He was a nice boy, he was friendly,” Channel said on Thursday. “She liked to play. Every time he walked down the hall, he said, ‘Good morning.’ ”
Sunday’s fire, ignited by a space heater, ruptured an apartment building known as Twin Parks North West and is considered the worst fire in New York City in three decades. So far, there are eight children among the dead. About a dozen people are reportedly hospitalized.
Many school communities struggle to respond as a close-knit community in the area, mostly Muslims from the Gambia and other West African countries, is reeling from grief, loss of shelter, or both. According to the Ministry of Education, six schools in the Bronx that serve families affected by the fire receive additional counseling support. Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools, did not lose any students, but said it served 11 students who were affected in some way. The school is looking for money for the victims.
Community officials report that many families are afraid of returning to the apartment building and some may need to change schools. Yet in the coming days and weeks, school may be the only place where children feel normal, several people have said.
“The public school must do the best it can for them,” said Imam Musa Kabba, who runs the mosque, which has become a key meeting place for many families displaced by the fire.
Nursing packages and mourning counseling
Kabba Mosque is located near PS 85, one of the schools serving children from Twin Parks North West. Between the school and nearby MS 391, the fire affected up to 40 children, said Joahan Suarez, chief program manager for Replications, a community organization that works with both schools to provide wrapping services.
Suarez’s organization has created care packages with toiletries and clothing for displaced families. But their greatest emphasis is on getting their mental health professionals, including a psychologist, to help schools accommodate students and families and give them space to talk. School counselors called some students every morning. They control their sleep habits. They make sure they eat.
“There are children who say they’re not sleeping well,” Suarez said. “They even have trouble having the desire to talk to their friends right now.”
Some PS 85 students returned from the building this week – they said the school was the only place where they “felt a little safe” – but others are not ready, Suarez said.
Schools have already had to pay close attention to ensuring that students feel safe and hear after the loss and isolation they have experienced during nearly two years of public health crisis, officials and community officials said. Now comes the devastating fire during a difficult school year, which has become even more chaotic after the winter break due to the increase in COVID infections.
“Something we often talk about is a complex sadness, and that means our children have suffered so much. And so it’s just another blow for them, for our school community, for our neighborhood, “said Dr. Roger Ball, head of the social work team at the Bronx Department of Education.
“And so part of our long-term responsibility to them – not just now, but in the long run – is to make sure we’re there, that all our children are connected to caring adults to make sure we have mental health. support within our school community. “
Ball’s team is working with six Bronx schools to provide grief counseling and care for children and, in some cases, their families. They saw many children who were close to their peers or relatives who had died. Ball noted that sadness can come “in waves” and children can express it in very different ways – some may laugh when they talk about fire, while others may want to be alone. His team plans to provide extra support to schools in need in the coming weeks.
The Ministry of Education is working on additional logistics, such as relocating schools or new bus lines for displaced students, said Education Ministry spokeswoman Suzan Sumer.
Educators struggle with loss
Mahamed Keita, a substitute teacher and technology support worker at Bronx International High School, was credited with rescuing a three-year-old girl from the building. After losing his own apartment on the 16th floor – the first one he ever rented himself, he cannot return to work.
On Sunday, as Keita waded through the smoky corridors of Twin Parks, he stumbled upon a mother with two young girls. He took his younger daughter out of the building, wrapped her in a jacket, and drove her in an ambulance to make sure she was okay, he said.
The girl was fine, but Keita was oxygenated and hospitalized for six hours.
Because he knows so many people who have died, he is still dealing with the tragedy, he said. They must visit a specialist separately for the lasting effects of smoke inhalation. Its owner told residents they could return, but when Keita did so, he found that the corridors were still filled with smoke and his apartment was lit with ashes.
They are staying at a hotel with other residents, where they have been told they can stay until 24 January. He is frustrated that they have not received any response from the city as to what will happen next.
Fortunately, he said, his director said there was no hurry to return to work while he handled everything. Keita said the headmaster visited him several times and called him to sign up.
“School really helps me a lot,” Keita said. “Everyone’s calling me.”
Michelle Gabriel, a high school teacher at a charter school in Harlem, was taken aback on Monday when she found out that three of her students had been displaced or lost their loved ones. One of them, a Gambian student who lost six cousins, three aunts and two uncles in the fire, attended a class on Tuesday because she wanted to concentrate on school, Gabriel said.
Gabriel changed her lesson plan for the day and instead asked the students to write letters to the victims. The student, who lost relatives – whom Gabriel said he asked for anonymity – proposed a verbal remark to Mayor Eric Adams, raising concerns about the building’s conditions and whether the city cared for its low-income immigrant communities.
The heater that caused the fire raised concerns about sufficient heat in the building. In addition, the door, which was supposed to close automatically, did not do so and allowed smoke to spread. Residents have reported complaints about buildings in both years regarding both problems, but city records show that the problems have been resolved.
“Where will the survivors live? How will you, the city and the government help these families? And what is the next step towards a better future? ”The student wrote in the letter. “Like many others, I cried every day since the fire. Words can’t describe my pain. I have little hope because the government is failing us again and again. ”