Crumbling Classrooms and Power Outages: Inside Puerto Rico's Storm-Damaged Schools
While many reopen, damage tests morale
Loiza, Puerto Rico
The roof over teacher Zelideth Otero López’s classroom is giving out, and her family’s devotion to the school, which runs three generations deep, might do the same.
López works alongside her daughter, Zelideth Ares Otero, who also teaches at Guillermina Rosado De Ayala elementary and middle school. López has taught at the school in this community east of San Juan for 15 years and her granddaughter, Adrielisa Ramirez Ares, is an 8th grader there. After helping to clean up the school and reopen it in November in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, López has been working to get her students back on track.
But she is a beleaguered educator. The conditions at the school even have some members of her family exploring the option of moving to places like Florida or Texas, where many other Puerto Ricans have relocated since the hurricane devastated the island.
Even after the school reopened, classes did not return to real school work for weeks. In a normal school year with seven academic units, López would expect to be on the third unit by now. Instead, she and her students are still working through the first.
While López teaches her English class, flakes of white paint flutter down from the scarred ceiling. The school flooded in the storm, and lingering mold and fungus are making students and teachers ill. The second floor where López works is so badly damaged it will soon be closed, and Guillermina Rosado De Ayala will have to operate in two shifts on the ground floor. Some will attend class from 8 a.m. to noon, and the others will attend from noon to 4 p.m. Students will lose about half their school day, and families will be further disrupted. Thirty-five students of the school’s pre-Maria enrollment of 512 haven’t come back, and most of those have left for the mainland.
López’s daughter could soon join them, and that thought leaves López in tears.
“I am not good with changes. It breaks your heart,” she said.
The struggle López and her school face shows how the hurricane continues to haunt Puerto Rico’s school system, as well as the educators and families who both serve and depend on it. As of last week, for example, about 340 of the island’s 1,100 public schools still did not have power, and between 25,000 to 30,000 students had left Puerto Rico.
But the reality for many schools belies simple statistics. Some schools, like Guillermina Rosado De Ayala, only have power or water for a few days a week. (López’s power at her home also goes on and off.) This can make everything from students’ ability to see the blackboard to the state of the bathrooms a wearisome and uncomfortable challenge.
Even in schools where power, water, and even the Internet are back on, students can be found milling in the hallways during class, evidence of the difficulty in maintaining an orderly school environment, but more specifically in finding substitute teachers.
Monica Arce, a theater teacher at López’s school, doesn’t bother to hide her anger. She calls the students “more distracted, more aggressive” since coming back to school in November.
“This is not good working conditions. It’s not fair to us,” Arce said. “I think some parents do not want their students to be here.”
At the entrance to the school hangs a whiteboard that lists the teachers who are absent, meaning their classes are canceled.
Tension concerning the fate of many schools is rising. Last week, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced that he wished to close 300 public schools as part of a larger plan to help the island’s money woes. Puerto Rico had already closed nearly 180 public schools last summer. The Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the teachers’ union, has blasted the move, saying it will cost many educators their jobs and harm students.
López’s granddaughter, Adrielisa, already knows the feeling of losing a school to Hurricane Maria. She only came to López’s school in November when Liberata Iraldo Molina, her old school in nearby Rio Grande, closed after Maria. She’s worried about her new school shutting down, leaving her adrift in the educational system once again.
“That was very hard because I had my best friends there,” Adrielisa said of her previous school “I had my besties. It was like saying goodbye.”
Adding to the anxiety around school conditions are rumors on social media. A list of schools making the rounds purporting to show which will actually be closed next year was false. There is not a list yet, said Jéssica Pérez Cámara, a spokesman for Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, adding that there are “a lot of false lists” in circulation.
Ironically, educators in schools without power in remote areas feel their jobs might survive, because the next-closest schools for many students take significant travel time to reach.
A 90-minute drive from the Loiza school is the Jaime Coira school, in the mountain area of Ciales. The school has no power and one generator, which is used largely for copying standardized tests. The high-altitude keeps the classrooms relatively cool, but the atmosphere is still muggy.
In Jessenia Roberto M. Rivas’ 4th grade English class, Victoria Alexandrina, 9, misses the songs on the radio and how she and her classmates would sing along early in the morning. Now, she says, there are just “more and more” worksheets.
“No power is no fun,” she said.
Rivas said she is focusing on preparing her students for those standardized tests in the spring. Her computer’s educational power in her classroom has given way to endless worksheets, which she spends her own money to copy in restaurants and other places. She can’t do it at home, where she has no power. She knows her situation is not unique, but she struggles to maintain her composure at school.
“Maybe [we] pretend we are happy,” Rivas said. “But if I am telling the truth, we’re not.”
Vol. 37, Issue 19, Pages 12-13Published in Print: February 7, 2018, as Months After Storm, Puerto Rico Schools Still Struggle