'Huge Lift' Remains as Puerto Rico Schools Struggle to Reopen
Schools in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico are slowly getting to their feet, but the struggle is particularly difficult in areas outside major urban centers, as Congress and federal officials continue to work out aid packages that could help the island's still mostly shuttered educational system.
When Hurricane Maria struck the island Sept. 20, the nearly 1,200 schools in Puerto Rico went dark, leaving about 350,000 students in the public K-12 system out of school. And many schools that began to reopen in recent weeks were operating largely as community-support centers, rather than normal instructional environments, until recently.
As of the week of Oct. 23, 119 schools had officially opened their doors for instruction in the cities of San Juan and Mayaguez, according to Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. Some of the 190 schools on the island that had been operating as community centers since Maria have consolidated their operations.
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Keleher said she hoped that approximately 150 more schools in Bayamon and Ponce (two relatively large cities in the U.S. territory) could restart classes this week.
At the moment, Keleher said her schools' biggest need is electricity. She said she did not know how many of the schools that had opened were doing without electricity.
Also as of last week, approximately 25 percent of Puerto Ricans had power, while 75 percent had water, according to Status PR, a website that tracks official statistics on Puerto Rico's recovery.
More broadly, Keleher said in a phone interview, "I need continued engagement from our colleagues and friends in the states, whether at the [state] level or at the district-leadership level, to help us by sending [people] with expertise in."
"It's a huge lift," she continued. "The more talented and knowledgeable people you can get on the team who can roll their sleeves up quickly, ... it makes it so much more of a systematic response than a one-off, problem-solving response."
Keleher also said she was experiencing friction with others in the education community who were pushing to open schools too early, in her view. She said her priority was ensuring that schools were checked for a variety of serious safety issues—from electrical wires hanging from the ceiling to the infestation of rats—before they could open.
"It's really important that we go in and have these buildings certified as safe," she said.
Requests for Aid
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney had set an Oct. 25 deadline for federal departments and agencies to submit their aid requests for Puerto Rico and other areas affected by recent natural disasters, specifically Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma, and wildfires in California. However, as of the print deadline for Education Week, the U.S. Education Department had not provided details about what it had requested or planned to request for Puerto Rico's schools.
Keleher said Jason Botel, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the Education Department, was visiting Puerto Rico's schools last week and was being helpful to her efforts to grapple with systemic issues still facing the K-12 system. Botel did not make himself available for comment. (Botel also visited schools in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were also affected by the recent hurricanes, according to a news report.)
Keleher also said she had received assistance from a food and nutrition specialist at the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Both the House and Senate have passed a $36.5 billion aid package for areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as those affected by recent wildfires in California.
Included in that legislation is $4.9 billion for maintaining essential services, including schools.
Separately, lawmakers have pressed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her department to act on a number of fronts.
In a letter sent last week to DeVos and Mulvaney, 61 lawmakers—the vast majority of them Democrats—outlined eight priorities that the Trump administration should focus on in providing resources to students, educators, and schools in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
They include funding payroll and other contractual obligations; helping with capital costs associated with rebuilding and repairing schools; providing support services for students left homeless after Hurricanes Irma and Maria; and helping to provide three free meals a day to students in the affected areas for the rest of the 2017-18 school year. The lawmakers noted that the Houston school district already has begun providing that meal service to students.
The letter was headlined by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the House education committee, and Jenniffer González-Colón, the Republican at-large representative for Puerto Rico in Congress.
"While all local educational agencies in affected areas are in need of federal support in the aftermath of recent storms, the needs of students and staff in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are especially pressing, because of the scope of devastation and lack of resources," the lawmakers wrote.
In this collection of videos from Education Week Deputy Director of Photography Swikar Patel, see how the people of Puerto Rico are responding to the devastation of Hurricane Maria and working to rebuild their lives — and their schools.
Vol. 37, Issue 11, Page 6Published in Print: November 1, 2017, as As Some Puerto Rico Schools Reopen, 'Huge Lift' Remains