Arecibo, Puerto Rico
Hurricane Maria has taken people away from Yzmar Roman.
The 16-year-old Puerto Rican high school student’s two best friends moved to the U.S. mainland in the wake of last September’s devastating storm, one to Florida and the other to Tennessee. Her father, a policeman, has been working long hours since Hurricane Maria and doesn’t have much time to learn about her day when he’s home. And her mother’s job as a bank teller also means she’s busy. Yzmar tries to lean on the friends she has, but she hears about their daily struggles since the storm and knows they have their own burdens.
So when a teacher at Dr. Maria Cadilla High School in Arecibo, about an hour west of San Juan, noticed a change in Yzmar and sent her to a social worker, Yzmar was grateful.
“I needed help because I couldn’t go and ask for help. I didn’t feel like I could,” Yzmar said. “I started talking. It just helped me a lot.”
The Puerto Rican government’s efforts to rebuild and remake its educational system will take years. But so will a complex and in some ways more fraught battle for the U.S. territory’s children and educators: helping them cope with trauma and meeting their emotional needs.
In February, the Puerto Rico Department of Education began a formal needs-assessment of all students from the 3rd grade up, as well as all teachers, to determine which schools have the most acute need for aid from counselors and social workers in managing trauma triggered by Hurricane Maria. The department is also training a team of 30 psychologists and other mental-health professionals to go into those highly affected schools to address the trauma of children and educators.
But research in the aftermath of other disasters shows that roughly six months after something like the hurricane, young Puerto Ricans could experience a wave of new symptoms stemming from Maria’s devastating effects. They may range from a fear of rain at night to violent behavior and suicide, said Joy Lynn Suarez-Kindy, a clinical psychologist and a consultant to the island’s education department on social, emotional, and mental-health issues.
“We could have a whole generation of people being depressed, traumatized, suicides going up, teenage pregnancies going up, addiction. It’s a whole generation that’s counting on the mental-health professionals to help them,” Suarez-Kindy said. “If we don’t do it, we are going to have a whole generation of people who have severe mental-health issues.”
Measuring the Impact
Roughly five months after the storm, hundreds of schools remain without power, and many others have only intermittent electricity and water. The effects on the mental health of those in Puerto Rico’s schools, including about 320,000 students, are another part of the slow-motion, fragmented fallout from Hurricane Maria. And the department still doesn’t want to treat schools like they all need just one solution when it comes to mental and emotional needs. To avoid that, it’s getting data.
In February, the island’s education department began administering a 40-question mental-health assessment to all students in the 3rd grade and higher and to all teachers. Developed by the federally funded National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the needs-assessment asks respondents about a range of topics, from whether they have nightmares to whether they lost their houses or loved ones. (Children leave their names off the surveys and don’t provide personal information.)
Rosaura Orengo-Aguayo, who translated the assessment and is helping to oversee its use in Puerto Rico, said it will help the department move beyond just assuming what the needs are in various communities.
“We’ll be able to target interventions to schools according to those results,” said Orengo-Aguayo, an assistant professor at the National Crime Victims Treatment and Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. She added that although the assessment has been used after other natural disasters, “this has never been done before at this scale.”
In addition, the island will seek additional funding to support trauma therapy in schools over the long term.
Nine days after the hurricane, Frank Zenere also arrived in Puerto Rico to help educators.
A school psychologist with the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district who also leads its crisis-management program, Zenere has helped schools in the immediate aftermath of disasters including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, the Pentagon, and rural Pennsylvania, and the tsunami that hit Sri Lankan and other Asian countries in 2004. Upon his arrival in Puerto Rico, he set to work providing training to Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, her top staffers, and 250 mental-health professionals, as well as school faculty.
Immediately after a catastrophe like Hurricane Maria, “Everyone is working to help one another,” helping to staunch or put off emotional and psychological stress at least initially, Zenere said. But after that, “Then you get a few weeks or months down the line, and you get into this longer period of disillusionment.” For teachers, as high-profile members of their communities, these feelings can be particularly acute.
And the effects of trauma can be worsened by the “cascading events and occurrences that aggravate the initial situation,” such as family and friends leaving the island.
Based on disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Zenere added, the impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder on Puerto Ricans will last several years.
In addition, those on the ground must deal with Puerto Rico’s taboo concerning mental health, said Orengo-Aguayo, who is Puerto Rican. She said that in many cases, if Puerto Ricans talk about experiencing difficult emotional or psychological issues, “you’re considered loco, like you’re crazy.”
Falling Through the Cracks
Sometimes, Maria P. Figueroa’s difficulties threaten to overwhelm her.
An English teacher at Dr. Maria Cadilla High School who’s taught in public schools for four years, her roof caved in when the hurricane swept over her house. Her living room flooded, her furniture was destroyed, and she has young daughters to care for. She has grappled long and hard with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stabilize her living situation.
And over the last several months, she’s struggled to maintain her passion for her students and the school when her life has been so severely damaged.
“Sometimes they teach us how to leave our problems in the outside and not in the classroom, but the reality of things is that, hello, we’ve been hit by a hurricane,” Figueroa said. “Not everybody’s going to take it well, and so I was trying to be as normal as I can because I’m supposed to be the teacher. I’m supposed to be the strong one. I can’t cry in front of my students. I can’t do that.”
Suarez-Kindy, the Puerto Rican Education Department’s consultant, says she is acutely aware of the balance the island must strike with teachers. She said she plans to use all of a $2 million School Emergency Response to Violence grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education last November to create wellness programs for educators.
In addition, she cited plans to have staffers from the New York state health department begin working with Puerto Rican teachers on mental-health issues, starting with 6,000 teachers in March. There are about 28,000 active teachers in public schools on the island.
“We expect too much from teachers. We’ve got to give them their own skills to handle their own [issues] as well,” Orengo-Aguayo said.
Zenere said there’s a potent analogy for what teachers face and how they must approach their own mental health: When oxygen masks drop during a flight, you must put your own mask on first before helping a child with his or hers.
“From day one, one of the groups that really keeps me up at night are the teachers. I feel that they fall through the cracks,” Suarez-Kindy said. “If you don’t help yourself, ... I can give you 100 workshops on how to help the kids, and it’s not going to register.”
‘That Wears on You Heavily’
Veteran social studies teacher Edgar Esquilin, who will retire at the end of the year from Guillermina Rosada De Ayala elementary and middle school in Loiza, a coastal community east of San Juan, has a different roof about to crumble—the one over his classroom. Water gathers on the floor from leaks overhead. Small shards of paint flutter down on him as he speaks. He emphasizes the different roles he has to play at his school, which is about to transfer teachers and seal off an entire floor because of hurricane damage.
“You have to be a clown, you have to be a psychologist, you have to be a surrogate father, public grandpa. I’m everything here, man,” Esquilin said.
His school highlights how the recovery for Puerto Rico varies depending on the community. Esquilin notes that Loiza is unusual, and was historically marginalized long before Maria, because of its geographical isolation imposed by a network of mangroves, as well as its large population of people of African descent via the slave trade. He said his school is crying out for help from the authorities, but educators worry that it could be shut down instead.
“If I can’t give my students what they need and what they deserve for my society and for my nation to thrive and get ahead, that wears on you heavily,” Esquilin said.
The island’s education department is trying to help teachers help students as well as themselves. Orengo-Aguayo of the National Crime Victims Treatment and Research Center also said teachers are being trained to notice children’s reactions that are linked to trauma, try to help them using simple coping skills, and direct them to a social worker for more thorough follow-up.
“Kids actually feel comfortable disclosing what’s showing up for them, as long as you provide them a confidential space and a structured space,” she said.
Mirelys Bilbraut, a social worker at the Marta Lafontaine school in rural Utuado, said it was a difficult time for the community when the school reopened. But she said the attitude of educators at Marta Lafontaine is that they don’t want to make students dwell on their experiences with Hurricane Maria.
More than once, Bilbraut referred to the school as “our home.” In general, she thinks the students conduct themselves well.
“When they came to school, they were calm. They feel secure here,” Bilbraut said, through a translator, about the students. “They were probably tired of being at home. They needed the school. They need to stop thinking about the hurricane.”
It’s not like that everywhere, however.
When students act up or refuse to do work in her class now, Figueroa, the high school English teacher, tends not to press them. Instead, she asks them about what’s happened to them, trying to draw out their difficulties at home. She wants to demonstrate her understanding for the challenges they face.
Nevertheless, she thinks the hurricane has hardened her students and made them “rough.”
“They changed. They changed, maybe a little bit for the worse,” Figueroa said.
Angel Corchado, 15, a student at Cadilla High, knows his timing could hardly have been worse.
Last June, Corchado returned to the island, where he was born and lived until he was 9 before moving to Orlando for five years. After Hurricane Irma struck South Florida in early September, his mother left Puerto Rico to find a job in the states. Then Maria hit.
Since then, Corchado has been separated from his mother and living with his grandmother, a situation he calls “very traumatizing.” He waited about two months before power was restored at his grandmother’s house, and at roughly the same time, he went back to school.
Corchado finds ways to entertain himself and reads about Greek mythology at home. But he finds the environment full of distractions at school, such as students playing loud music in the hallways when they’re supposed to be in class. He considers Florida home.
“This was a bad year to come over here,” Corchado said.
Pitfalls and Plans
Suarez-Kindy said she has leaned on advice she got from Miami-Dade school psychologist Zenere: that especially in a place like Puerto Rico, faith, family, and community prove key when people are struggling to rebound from traumatic events.
Still, she’s also worried that over time, the gulf between the haves and have-nots in Puerto Rico will continue to grow as the recovery occurs at different rates in different places. That could, she said, exacerbate people’s emotional issues.
These lingering difficulties could lead to more domestic violence, more substance abuse, and increased crime on an island where public resources are already taxed beyond their limits, she said.
“Definitely the island has been divided,” she said.
Yzmar Roman has plans to follow her two best friends out of Puerto Rico—but not quite yet.
While her high school was closed during Hurricane Maria recovery, she downloaded an app to her phone that’s helping her learn Italian. She works out after school in the hopes of one day attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
And she’s relieved to be back in class.
“There are a lot of things that intrigue me, so many languages that I can learn, so many things that I can do,” she said. “I just want to do it all, basically.”
In this collection of videos from 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.
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Emotional Needs of Students, Educators Crucial to Puerto Rico’s School Recovery