One year ago, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico. For the educators, students, and parents who remain on the island, nothing has been the same since.
In sheer practical terms, they are grappling with lingering storm damage, shifts in school assignments after hundreds of buildings were closed in the wake of the hurricane, and the implications of a system-wide reorganization.
Amid it all, the island’s education leaders are still trying to grasp the extent of the trauma they and their school communities are suffering, and how best to address that emotional and psychological pain.
An Education Week reporting team visited several schools in Puerto Rico at the start of the new school year, and talked with teachers, administrators, and others about the lingering challenges caused or exacerbated by the storm. Here are some of their stories.
Puerto Rico’s Schools One Year After Maria
Taking It Apart
Norma Rodriguez Salinas has little time to mourn the elementary school where she used to be the director before she had to dismantle it.
To help other schools get ready for this academic year, Salinas had to remove classroom materials, equipment, and other vital elements that could be salvaged from the now-closed Escuela Calzada and ferry them to other schools that are still open.
“All those days and those hours and those dreams that one built with that school just vanished overnight,” said Salinas, who’s now the director at Escuela Higinio Figueroa Villegas (a K-8 school) in the community of Maunabo, which is just a 10-minute drive away from where she used to work. “That hurts. And that hurts because with so much effort and dedication we do things, and later we have to get rid of that to give it to others. [It’s] a bit painful.”
Salinas is under no illusions. She knows that declining enrollment is a “compelling” reason her school and others had to close. But like some others in Puerto Rico’s education system, Salinas said she felt parents were not properly consulted.
“It has been a runaway process. It has not been communicated properly,” Salinas said.
As the head of a different school this year, she was worried early about teachers who had not arrived to start work by opening day. But she thanked God for the good start she’d had with the staff who did show up to work at Villegas.
“Now I am getting to know a new culture,” Salinas said. “I feel like a new teacher.”
Lourdes Flores Rodríguez taught for 18 years at a school about half an hour away before she was also reassigned by the Puerto Rico Department of Education. She cries when she thinks about how long she now has to leave her baby son because she no longer lives close by her job.
“I am very far from what I knew,” Rodriguez said.
But she’s also willing to keep an open mind.
“I know that if I fall in love with this school, I will fight, and I will stay here,” she said.
‘People Tend to Resist Change’
At an elementary school in the town of Canovanas, the school’s new director and the parents couldn’t even agree about whether the school should be open.
Escuela Pedro Albizu Campos had to take in students from a nearby school that the Department of Education shut down over the summer. On opening day in mid-August at the elementary school, there was water on the floor and missing sections of classroom ceilings. Tensions boiled over as parents argued with the director, Annette Astrid Llanos Algarin, who was also upset by the media’s presence at the school.
After the fight subsided and the parents left, Algarin preached patience. Her message to parents was to give her and her staff time, and they would prove they could provide what students need.
“Everything in this environment is a process of adaptation. The first process is that people tend to resist change,” Algarin said. “If the father feels at ease, if he knows the kind of work we do here in this school, he will be happy and will trust that we will be able to help his children.”
She sympathized with the parents who have unwillingly had to take their children to a new school. She said even though she’d been working to get the school ready over the summer, she hadn’t had the time to finish.
It was obvious to Xiomara Rivera, a parent of a student who was transferred to Pedro Albizu Campos, that some classrooms were not ready to open at the start of the year. She wasn’t thrilled that her daughter had to change schools. But she said Campos had a good reputation and that her daughter was happy to be in class.
“At least I’ll have … my daughter here because economically I can’t pay for another school,” Rivera said.
But another parent, Suleyra Ortiz, was having none of it. She described the school’s condition on opening day as “subhuman,” and said she had been misinformed about the date the school would start classes, two days later than it actually did.
“I think they are not in a position for my girl to take her class here,” Ortiz said. “The children do not deserve it. I think it is not appropriate.”
Getting Her Wish
Margie Cintrón spent her summer wondering if her job would disappear.
An English teacher last year at Escuela Jesus T. Piñero in Cidra, she does not have a permanent contract. As the Department of Education shut down hundreds of schools over the summer, she wondered if she would get her wish and be offered a job again at the school, which she said lets her be “really creative” with her students. With fewer jobs to go around after the school closures, she wondered if she would work at all this year. At the same time, she empathized with permanent teachers who had to leave long-standing jobs to work in new schools.
Cintrón said her summer was “nerve-wracking.” The good news came just 10 days before the new school year started: Cintrón was one of the lucky ones. She could return to Jesus T. Piñero, which includes grades 6-11. She said she jumped up and down with joy when she heard.
“You get these connections with students, with colleagues,” said Cintrón, who began her sixth year of teaching this year. “You feel like it’s a family. ... I understand the reason for closing the schools. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get nervous.”
After losing six weeks of class time due to the storm, the end of the last school year felt particularly stressful, said the school’s director, Talia Méndez. Her hopes that state tests would be suspended last spring were for naught.
“Things got better. But they still lost a lot of time,” said Méndez, who’s worked at the school as a director and teacher for about 20 years. “Students felt a bit overwhelmed.”
This year, she has to integrate 75 new students into the school, although a new online enrollment system implemented by the Department of Education made that process go well. And at the start of the year, she didn’t know exactly how far students had fallen behind where they should be. The school will have to lean on diagnostic tests for answers to that question.
“Hopefully nothing will happen this year and we’ll be able to work normally,” Méndez said.
Video Producer Erin Irwin and Contributing Producer Doyle Maurer contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as A Year Later, Hurricane Maria Still Haunts Educators in Puerto Rico’s School System