School & District Management

Puerto Rico Teachers’ Union Adds Muscle to School Recovery Efforts

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 11, 2017 3 min read
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San Juan, Puerto Rico

When Hurricane Maria struck, Aida Díaz hid in her bathroom with four other family members, including her mother and sister. When she emerged, water had come into her home through the roof.

After she tended to more immediate concerns in her home, Díaz, the head of the 40,000-member Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, had thousands of members of her teacher’s union to think about.

Since the storm hit the island Sept. 20, Diaz has been pushing to track down and get basic aid to teachers. Her union headquarters in downtown San Juan is packed to the gills with water, diapers, tampons, mosquito repellent, rice, and other supplies. The early days following the hurricane were a struggle for the union—48 hours after the storm, only three AMPR staff members could make it to the union offices.

Aida Díaz, right, president of the Puerto Rico teachers' union, stands with teacher Edmarie Díaz in her classroom at Escuela Elemental Ines M. Mendoza in Comerio, Puerto Rico

Díaz is trying to make long-term plans about how schools can recover and help provide students with an education. But those efforts aren’t as important right now as supplies and trying to help students get back on their feet emotionally.

“We have students that can’t sleep after the hurricane,” Díaz said. “We have students that see rain and start crying. We have to work with all of them.”

That goes for her teachers as well. On a supply run Díaz made this week to Comerío, a town about an hour southwest of San Juan during good traffic conditions, she met with Edmarie Díaz, a teacher at the Ines M. Mendoza Elementary School whose home was destroyed by the hurricane. When Edmarie Díaz began talking about her experience, she broke down crying and had to stop.

Work Gets Done

Even the schools that are in decent enough condition to host activities right now are far from back on track with regular academics and schedules. They are holding events such as read-alouds to try to provide students with emotional support and to show that, as a key hub for many communities, schools can be a stabilizing force.

In addition to the supplies it is receiving, organizing, and distributing, the teachers’ union is distributing money in amounts of up to $500 each to help teachers who need assistance finding new places to live. Separately, Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher is granting teachers hardship waivers—they have until Jan. 8 to come back to work and maintain their jobs.

See Also: In Puerto Rico, a Daunting Effort to Reopen Schools, Headed by a Determined Leader

But of course, teachers, like everyone else on the island, have lost more than just their homes. The storm has made at least one teacher a widow, Díaz said, after the woman’s husband died in a mudslide. The teacher’s leg was injured and eventually had to be amputated.

Díaz also acknowledged that she must bow to the inevitable migration to the U.S. mainland of at least some teachers who decide that they must leave the island to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Those who stay will still face a great deal of disruption. Some schools will not open for months. Díaz said students whose schools are still shuttered will have to scatter to the closest available school that’s open. Teachers will have to adjust to students they’ve never taught before from outside their normal feeder system. And teachers will also have to collaborate in new ways to help each other as they get their classrooms up and running again.

However, Díaz said they’re already doing that as they assess the damage to their schools.

“They are willing to start doing something,” Díaz said. “They are cleaning the schools. They are cutting trees. They are doing anything just to reopen those schools. No matter what they have in their private lives, they are doing whatever they can.”

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