A woman and her son scramble over a tree toppled by Superstorm Sandy as she accompanies him today to Public School 195, background, in the Manhattan Beach neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough.
NEW YORK — The nation's largest school system lurched to life Monday, when all but the most affected students still suffering from Superstorm Sandy made their way back to classes on foot, ferry and subway.
Students at Stuyvesant High School, the city's most selective school, swarmed out of Lower Manhattan's subway stations after electricity was restored to the devastated area by the weekend.
"Being cooped up in my house for nine days was not fun!" said sophomore Nathan Mannes. "I did my homework, and when I finished that I played some video games."
Less than 50 schools throughout the five boroughs remained closed because of structural damage and fewer than 20 were without power, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters at midday. About 16 schools were being used to shelter people left homeless by Sandy, though most of the displaced will be moved out by the time those students return Wednesday, he said.
A handful of schools opened their doors with partial utility service.
"We have power but no heat — so bundle up!" read a sign on the door of the Spruce Street School, which opened last year in a downtown high-rise designed by Frank Gehry.
About 73,000 of the city's 1.1 million public school students were told to stay home Monday while education officials scrambled to ready temporary space for them at functioning schools or to get at least partial power on at schools they usually attend. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Dennis Walcott, said the city will make good use of the school holiday on Election Day to ensure relocations go as smoothly as possible.
Morning attendance was about 86 percent, the mayor said, about the same as the day before the nonpresidential election last year. He said 94 percent of 1,700 schools were open.
"It was a relatively successful first day," Bloomberg said, noting some of the school buildings still closed took severe beatings and may take more time to reopen.
Fare cards for city buses and subways were handed out to an undetermined number of students living in shelters or with loved ones far from school.
In hard-hit New Jersey, buses pulled up to Elementary School 14 in Clifton, where Sheila Carrasquillo dropped off her 11-year-old daughter, Layla. The girl is autistic and suffered through the week at home without special services normally provided at school, including occupational and physical therapy.
"I was trying to keep up some of the routine with her at home," Carrasquillo said.
On storm-tattered Long Island, Bethpage School District was among the few in damaged areas to open Monday. Curious students at Kramer Avenue Elementary School in Plainview asked each other if they had heat and electricity at home.
The answer was "no" for Lori Moerler and her fifth-grade daughter, Elizabeth. No heat, no lights and no water.
"You know what? We are very fortunate," Moerler said after bidding her child goodbye. "There's a lot of people who have nothing. We have our house. We have our family. We're OK."
North of New York City, in Westchester County, Ted Johnson dropped off his two sons at Colonial School in Pelham.
"It's a relief, mostly for them," he said. "They get to go someplace where they have electricity."
In damaged New York City neighborhoods, some displaced families with no Internet connection or phones got no advance word on whether their kids' schools would open Monday morning. The Department of Education is using robocalls, text message, newspaper advisories and parent coordinators at schools to inform families of closings and relocations. Bloomberg conceded some may have fallen through the cracks.
Public School 126 in Chinatown was closed because it had no power. A sign on the door directed families to check the school's website to learn where students will report Wednesday. Some families showed up anyway, greeted by an Education Department employee fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese who explained.
At nearby P.S. 2, laughter and shouting filled the yard as children played basketball before heading in. Fourth-grader Helen Chen said she was glad to be back at school after her mundane time off. "It was pretty boring," she said.
A couple blocks away, P.S. 1 also was open as Jacqueline Soto dropped off her fifth-grader, Maria Teresa Rivera. Soto said Maria Teresa spent her week at home watching movies on a battery-powered DVD player. "She didn't want to go out," Soto said.
Soto and her family got power back Friday night. Having the school open was another welcomed sign of returning to normalcy.
"It feels good," she said. "It's good to see people again."