Back-to-school at P.S. 145 in Upper Manhattan was once again unusual this fall — but not because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Families and teachers left behind masks and social distancing for donation drives and volunteering, in an effort to welcome about 40 of the more than 2,000 migrant students enrolling in New York City public schools.
“It’s been a difficult opening of school,” said Principal Natalia Russo.
“Usually I’m bogged down in logistics — this year, it’s about helping people get jobs, food, clothes, underwear,” she said.
The elementary school at 150 West 105th Street has stretched a budget allocated last spring for fewer students to help families enroll without birth certificates and other documentation, and to adjust to life in the city.
The city Department of Education has been working to welcome the scores of school-aged kids among the estimated 11,000 migrants bused to Manhattan, many of them from Texas, since the spring.
After reading about asylum seekers being housed at the Park West Hotel nearby, Russo sent Juan Abreu, the parent coordinator at P.S. 145 The Bloomingdale School to the temporary shelter to help parents sign their kids up.
One of the newcomer parents, from Venezuela, told The Post she spent half a year saving $700 to travel to the US with her husband and kids. Among her three children was a newborn, who the mom gave birth to along the way in Ecuador.
The family was sent to New York from Texas this summer, less than two weeks before the start of school. The mom said they were not asked if they had family in the city, or wanted to travel there.
Another parent, also from Venezuela, said the family was aiming to wind up in San Antonio, but landed in the Big Apple instead, and were sent to the Central Park West hotel, also less than two weeks before classes started.
At the hotel, Abreu said he started by providing translation help — but then quickly discovered there was more he could do.
He started a group chat with the migrant families on WhatsApp, a mobile messenger application, so he could answer questions and organize workshops or drives.
Last week, he facilitated a lesson for parents seeking to sign their kids up for after-school programs — a process Abreu said partially required computer access and was in English.
“I still remember all the things my mom went through,” said Abreu, who came to the US with his mom at age 4 and shuffled between shelters until he was 11. “I just want to be that helping hand.”
He and other staffers at the school, which offers two dual language programs, in Spanish and in Russian, have organized weekly laundry drives, where teachers take home two bags per family and wash them over the weekend.
Most of the families, however, didn’t arrive with enough clothing to even have two bags full a week.
“They came back with maybe a third filled for the entire family,” said Russo, the principal, whose father was an asylum seeker from Ecuador.
“People came here with nothing but their sense of desperation to find a better life.”
The administration has explored options for installing a washer-dryer in the school, and is also pushing for more counselors and social workers who are fluent in Spanish.
“We’ve gotten the good-intention announcement,” said Naveed Hasan, parent of a 3rd grader and a member of the parent-led council for the school district. “We haven’t gotten numbers of staff yet.”
In the meantime, parents and staff have solicited donations, showed newcomer families how to get a MetroCard and travel around the city and put together backpacks with uniforms and school supplies.
“The whole neighborhood has come together to bring the resources today, so we don’t have to wait,” Hasan said.
The volunteers have also enlisted the help of local council member Shaun Abreu, who said his office organized donation drives for clothes, toiletries and other supplies, plus legal, language and medical services.
“I’ve been inspired by the way Upper Manhattan has stepped up to accept and support asylum-seeking families that have made their home here,” said Abreu.
“Our obligations are both legal and moral,” he added.
The school is still expecting more new arrivals in the coming months, according to PTA member Jenya Holovach from Ukraine, who is also helping families fleeing the war-torn country.
“We’re still going to have more families come to school before the new year,” Holovach said.