Student Well-Being

Hurricanes, Earthquakes, and COVID-19 Make a Dire Trio for Puerto Rico’s Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 27, 2020 11 min read
Kindergartner Andres Vazquez works at a plastic table under a gazebo where his teacher gives a class at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down school buildings throughout the island, some children in Puerto Rico like Andres had been left out of school for nearly a month after an earthquake forced school closures earlier this year.
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When her aunt told family members to start praying, Arianna Castro knew something was wrong. It turned out Arianna’s older sister in Philadelphia had contracted the coronavirus.

Arianna, 13, was already enduring Puerto Rico’s COVID-19 restrictions, which were among the strictest of any state or territory during much of the pandemic. Like tens of millions of her fellow public school students, she’d been stuck at home since mid-March and trying to piece together some semblance of regular academic work. And like millions of U.S. children her age, she made that effort without dependable access to the internet, a problem that can be particularly acute for those in Puerto Rico.

But when her sister contracted the virus, it overshadowed those other concerns.

“A lot of people were dying from it, and I didn’t want my family to die from it,” said Arianna, a student at Escuela Manuel Febres González in Carolina, just east of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan.

Her sister ultimately recovered without being seriously affected. But Arianna doesn’t think she’ll be able to say the same about the pandemic’s effect on her education: “I actually think I lost a lot of learning.”

In several ways, the island’s struggles mirror the experiences of many American educators, students, and parents during the pandemic. But as the coronavirus has scrambled schooling on the U.S. mainland in an unprecedented way, the pandemic is just the latest massive disruption for Puerto Rico in the last few years. And it could put a further strain on an island-wide school system dealing with long-term financial and demographic woes.

See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria left a trail of devastation in Puerto Rico. In addition to knocking out power and other essential services, they shut down many classrooms for extended periods. Arianna said her school was closed for two months due to those two storms.

The catastrophe led thousands of students to flee the island for the mainland, and ultimately led the U.S. territory’s education department to permanently close more than 250 public schools amid much controversy. (Puerto Rico’s education secretary at the time, Julia Keleher, still makes waves on the island, though now it is for being arrested twice since leaving office last year on fraud and other charges; the court cases against her are still pending.)

Starting late last year, a series of earthquakes have hit Puerto Rico. The southern part of the island has been affected the most, with some schools forced to close. The tremors have continued into this year.

Then came COVID-19, which closed school buildings on March 16; they haven’t reopened for classes since.

Arianna Castro, left, and her mother, Yaidimar Ramirez. Castro, 13, has endured a strict lockdown in Carolina, Puerto Rico, since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now headed into the 8th grade, Castro said she feels that her academic studies suffered significantly over the last two months, even though she tried to keep up with assignments and helped fellow students send them to teachers.

The trifecta of hardships has hit an island where childhood poverty is an acute issue. Last year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that for the 2013-2017 time period, 84 percent of Puerto Rico’s children lived in areas of concentrated poverty, defined as U.S. Census tracts with poverty rates of at least 30 percent. That was more than triple the percentage of any other state or other jurisdiction in the foundation’s study, and it was measured largely before the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

For the 2018-19 school year, Puerto Rico had 307,000 students, according to federal statistics, a decline of about 43,000 students from when Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island in September 2017.

Each of the major disruptions has affected Arianna differently. But they’ve combined to make her more anxious about what could happen at any moment. One 2018 study found that the average student in Puerto Rico missed nearly 80 days of school due to Hurricane Maria. And the traumatic impacts of the 2017 storms on students in particular have been a focus of educators and researchers for some time.

“It’s been hard. A lot of things all together at the same time, it’s stressful. It changes our lives a lot,” Arianna said. “You could be sleeping. You could be in the shower. You never know who you’re going to be with and how it’s going to happen.”

‘We Were Not Prepared for This’

The island’s education department announced in April that May 8 would mark the end of the academic year. The department also said that in general, students could advance to the next grade automatically, even though the 2019-20 school year had come to an abrupt and truncated end and many students had yet to receive typical end-of-year grades.

In the interim, as part of the effort to provide remote learning options for students, the department posted instructional videos for subjects, such as geometry and algebra, and published remedial modules as well as activity banks for educators to use. (Puerto Rico’s education department did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

But Nelson Soto felt completely wrong-footed when the coronavirus crisis came.

Soto, a teacher at Escuela Jose R. Barreras in Morovis, southwest of San Juan, held classes Friday, March 13 not unlike a normal day. But by the end of the day, his school director—the equivalent of a principal—told him that as part of the island-wide lockdown, the school building would close. The lockdown began on March 16, several weeks after Soto said he first began to worry about the virus reaching Puerto Rico.

Initially, Soto said he relied on a government database to try to track down students, but some of the information wasn’t accurate. So he found more via WhatsApp, and eventually reached about three-quarters of his students. He was disappointed at what he said was the lack of preparation from the island’s education department for events like a pandemic, and questioned why the department didn’t have lessons ready to put on public television, which he said would have ensured broad access.

Eventually, he and his fellow teachers cobbled together their own schedule in which Monday was the day for math instruction, Tuesday was for Spanish, and so on. This was done to help students “get adjusted to the new reality” and “make them more comfortable.” Soto developed his own WhatsApp channel for each of the grade levels he teaches at the middle school. Some of his students relied on neighbors’ laptops or internet service to get access to the lessons.

“It was very, very hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a teacher,” said Soto, who has been teaching for about two decades. “We were not prepared for this. We did our best trying to help the students.”

If teachers had had a little more preparation time to address what might happen with the coronavirus, he said, “I think we would have had better communication with students. I thought we could have created a more virtual classroom.” However, he said he supports the government’s decision to promote students en masse to the next grade, saying that to do otherwise would have unfairly punished students.

Arianna’s classroom work didn’t involve things like live Zoom videos with her teachers, but she was able to communicate with teachers through things like phone apps. Some of Arianna’s classmates who didn’t have internet relied on her to send in their assignments, since her home internet was—relatively speaking—reliable.

“I had to find places in the house where I could send teachers my work, and sometimes I was late because I didn’t have the signal to send it to them,” she said.

Lack of reliable internet access has been one challenge that Puerto Rico’s students and educators share with their mainland counterparts. Nutrition is another.

School cafeterias were crucial to feeding many Puerto Ricans in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes. But it’s been a struggle to put them to use the same way during the pandemic.

For some time, due to health concerns, the island’s government refused to open the cafeterias to help feed students and families, although it eventually did open some. And the dispute over how they should operate safely in Puerto Rico has become contentious enough to trigger a lawsuit, with nonprofit groups and mothers alleging that the government was shirking its responsibility to feed students.

Even though he highlighted the “complicated logistics” of using the cafeterias in a statement to the Associated Press, Secretary of Education Eligio Hernández Pérez appeared keenly aware of the pressure he and others were under to ensure that they opened. From April 30 to May 8, the last day of instruction for the 2019-20 school year, he posted or shared content on Twitter about feeding students and school cafeterias roughly a dozen times.

After Hurricane Maria, Soto said, he helped distribute food to needy families, and he’s done the same thing during the pandemic. But some children who a few years ago were used to simply walking to the fridge to get food have found themselves on some days unsure of where they’ll get meals from.

“My students, they have changed a lot,” Soto said. “They are little kids with grown minds. They’ve been through a lot in the past three years.”

Not the Same Without a Teacher

Six kids, one phone for them to use to learn.

That’s what Dinah Padilla, a teacher with 15 years of experience, said about the family of one of the students in her homeroom class after COVID-19 shut down the island’s public schools. Padilla was eventually able to reach all 25 of the students in her homeroom. And she was able to stay in relatively continuous contact with all but five of them.

Like Soto, Padilla, who has taught Arianna in the 6th and 7th grades at Escuela Manuel Febres González, said that she was able to put together lessons for her students in part through teaming up with other teachers. That meant working out which of the modules created by the island’s education department the students would use and developing a kind of syllabus to help students stay on track. She sent students’ assignments via email and followed up with phone calls and WhatsApp.

She remembers the effort she put into it, as well as individual instances where it didn’t work out. One parent she was in contact with for a while, Padilla recalled, simply stopped responding to messages, and other teachers who reached out to her reported the same thing: “Maybe she got tired of dealing with all the teachers in this way.” Roughly the same thing happened, she said, to another teacher who dropped off the map after COVID-19 shut down the schools.

Padilla has mixed feelings about how the department handled the crisis. She said the education secretary has been put in a difficult position, especially when it comes to how much technology has been available to educators. Padilla said the department had posted good materials for teachers to use, but downloading them was a challenge, and that the online tools provided by the department sometimes worked well, but at other times did not.

Perhaps with an eye on the chance that some or all school buildings might be force to close again later this year, officials are trying to address educators’ grasp of online tools. This week, the department announced a new initiative to assess teachers’ skills with education technology and help them get additional professional development with ed-tech.

But even reliable access to the internet is no sure thing for the people who are supposed to rely on it to teach students during the pandemic. Padilla said she knows four colleagues who don’t have internet of their own. That matches the problem some educators in the states face; Padilla questioned why the island’s government doesn’t help pay for her internet, given that she used it to teach.

Colleagues in the southern part of Puerto Rico whose schools were damaged by the earthquakes were shut out of their schools long before the pandemic; Padilla said she knows colleagues there who haven’t even been back since those tremors started at the turn of the year. Some students in that region of Puerto Rico returned to classes held in tents, not their actual school buildings.

Padilla is daunted by what’s coming up if schools reopen in August as planned, from questions about whether there will be important supplies like hand sanitizer to preparing assignments for next year’s students in areas where they may have been struggling at the end of the last school year.

“We’re going to have a lot of work next semester,” she said.

Exactly how many teachers will be around at the start of the upcoming school year to get that work done is an open question. For years, schools on the U.S. mainland have heavily recruited teachers from Puerto Rico, in part because many of those teachers are bilingual. Hurricane Maria caused an exodus of people from Puerto Rico to the mainland, but it’s unclear exactly what impact COVID-19 will have on the island’s demographic trends.

“I have coworkers tell me: ‘I don’t know what you’re doing down there ... you’re like gold in the states,’” said Padilla, who teaches English as a second language. Later, she said she’s been thinking about all the systematic factors that have made her job especially difficult in the last few years: “We have not recovered 100 percent from Maria.”

The island’s education officials are trying to ensure the end of the school year doesn’t completely dissolve in a fog. The education department recently announced that academic progress reports for students would be sent to parents and guardians on June 5.

But Arianna looks at the assignments she completed during the island’s lockdown as something she had to do, not something that helped move her educational experience forward in any meaningful way. That’s because, in her words, “Sometimes you need the teacher to be there to be able to explain the work in a better way” for students to truly understand it.

Her sister in Philadelphia is recovering from the virus, Arianna said. And the island’s government has eased restrictions tied to the pandemic. But because her mother works at an airport in Puerto Rico where it’s relatively easy to come into contact with COVID-19, Arianna has been on edge for weeks. And thinking about the next school year fills her with uncertainty.

“When school opens, if it does reopen, that’s going to be hard to do,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2020 edition of Education Week as Hurricanes, Earthquakes, and COVID-19 Make a Dire Trio for Puerto Rico’s Schools


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