The scene at St. Patrick School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, seemed no different from that at any other parochial school: Students stood bright-eyed and fidgety in choirlike rows around the auditorium stage, rehearsing carols for an annual Christmas pageant.
But sprinkled among them were two dozen public school students from the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens who had been marooned by Hurricane Sandy and were taken in as refugees of sorts. Nearly two months later, they are still there, and so far they are not being asked to pay tuition.
Over 200 public school students from the ravaged Rockaways were dispersed to a half-dozen Roman Catholic schools in southern Brooklyn -- in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Mill Basin and Marine Park -- according to officials of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens. And for the first time in their young lives, some students are reciting morning prayers, attending daily religion classes and wearing plaid jumpers or regulation navy slacks, though the schools are not requiring uniforms.
Some students are adjusting to unfamiliar faces, while others are delighted to be attending classes with cousins and friends they know from once-careless summers on Breezy Point's beaches.
Several, though, have not been able to put behind them the trauma of the night when they wondered whether their parents would return safely or the shock in the days afterward of seeing their rooms, toys and clothing mangled beyond repair.
Isabella Neibel, 11, a sixth grader who had attended Scholars' Academy, a public school in Rockaway Park, recalled how her mother had weathered the storm on the high ground of the Breezy Point Cooperative's offices where she worked, while the rest of the family had evacuated to relatives in Bay Ridge. Isabella said she had been worried. Then she suddenly covered her face with her hands and sobbed. Two new schoolmates comforted her, and soon they, too, were weeping. A moment later, in the ways of an 11-year-old, Isabella was giggling at her outburst.
On the Monday after the storm, St. Patrick School reopened with 325 children, 50 of them displaced. About half of those extra students came from other parochial schools in the Rockaways and 25 from public schools, mostly from Public School/Middle School 114 in Belle Harbor, which serves Breezy Point's year-round residents. The P.S./M.S. 114 students were originally reassigned to other public schools in Queens, some 12 miles away.
But their parents were now living doubled up with relatives or friends in Bay Ridge or had rented temporary apartments there. They wanted a school nearby where their children might recognize other students and where relatives could pick them up afterward, Andrea D'Emic, St. Patrick's principal, said.
"Parents felt more comfortable in a small setting that they had a connection to rather than in a big school they had no connection to," she added. "They wanted their children to be in a secure environment so the parents could take care of whatever else they had to take care of."
Some parents, heartsick about their own losses and frustrated in their dealings with insurance companies, utilities and government officials, were quickly beguiled by St. Patrick's intimate sense of community. Megan Doherty, 36, a mother of three, recalled how her two-story house in Breezy Point had been swamped by a tide that reached four feet up the first floor, forcing the family to gut the building.
"We didn't know where to go or what to do," she said.
Her family moved in with an aunt in Bay Ridge, where she had grown up. Though she believed that P.S./M.S. 114 was an exceptional school, it closed for a month. St. Patrick restored the comfortable routines of school for her sons, Aidan, 9, and Nolan, 5.
"It's a saving grace they took us in," Ms. Doherty said, wiping away tears. "They opened their doors. They waived tuition. They donated uniforms. Now the boys are very happy."
When classmates ask her sons what happened, she said, "they tell them water washed away everything." But she likes to tell her children: "Home is not a building. It's where we are, with Mommy and Daddy."
St. Patrick has taken the extra students in stride, Ms. D'Emic said, with longtime Catholic school parents helping to register shellshocked families and teachers whose classrooms would now be more crammed offering nothing but welcome.
"It was a very emotional morning for all of us," Ms. D'Emic said of the first school day after the storm. "Children of all ages had lost their homes, their schools, were living with relatives, with just the clothing on their backs, and they were starting a new school. By 9:15 we had every child in a class. When the children were settled in, some parents burst into tears."
Guidance counselors were assigned. As Msgr. Jamie J. Gigantiello, the diocese's vicar for development, pointed out, "Some of the children feel they can't break down before their parents." Still, for the parents it was a relief to see at least one aspect of their lives return to something approaching normal.
The school will not be reimbursed by the city's Education Department for instructing the public school students, Monsignor Gigantiello said.
Weeks after the storm, many parents have decided to keep their children at St. Patrick, trying to sustain some stability. They did not doubt their decision when they learned that some P.S./M.S. 114 parents complained that its reopening had been too soon and that there was still an odor of sewage and possibly traces of mold, though the Education Department said tests showed the air was safe.
Many of the reassigned students' parents plan to keep them in St. Patrick for the rest of the year, if not for the remainder of elementary school, reversing decisions they had made years ago -- often for financial reasons -- to have their children attend public schools. About a dozen public school students have applied for scholarships so they can attend next year; tuition is $4,300 for one child and $7,300 for two.
Joseph Mortellaro, 37, a parent and sanitation worker whose home in Rockaway Park was severely damaged, said he was so pleased by how "everybody opened their arms to us" at St. Ephrem School in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, that there was a possibility he would permanently switch his two children, Joseph, 9, and Nikki, 6, to St. Ephrem from P.S./M.S. 114 next year, though cost was still a concern.
For now, the diocese hopes to cover the extra costs for the displaced students with donations. About 75 public schools students still attend Catholic schools in Brooklyn.
Linda Addonisio, principal of St. Anselm School in Bay Ridge, said the "transition has been seamless" for her four public school students. "They've been here long enough to get a progress report," she said, "and they've done well academically."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.