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Re-Opening Puerto Rico’s Schools Takes a Back Seat to Island’s Basic Needs

By Sarah D. Sparks & Denisa R. Superville — September 27, 2017 7 min read
Trees snapped by Hurricane Maria surround the Escuela Carmen Gomez Tejera school in Santa Rosa, Puerto Rico. The conditions of many schools on the island aren't even known yet as residents and relief workers struggle to get access to basic needs such as power, water, and medicine.
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A week after Hurricane Maria, the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in decades, there’s less immediate concern about when schools will reopen and more about when children and families will have access to food, running water, and power.

“On the island, there are 700,000 children and this is now a week that they have been without power, food, running water, access to telephones—in really scorching temperatures,” said Negin Janati of the aid group Save the Children, which has started setting up “child friendly” centers for child care and children’s supplies in San Juan. There is so little fuel, she said, that the team in San Juan has not been able to reach much beyond the city limits.

In fact, parts of Puerto Rico have been without power since Hurricane Irma sideswiped the island three weeks ago. “The situation is really dire. It is very bad on the ground.”

Of the 65 schools across the island that Aida Diaz has visited in the last few days, most were not fit to resume classes, according to Diaz, the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. It represents about 40,000 teachers in Puerto Rico. In one school, a 24-foot wall collapsed. In the northern coastal town of Cataño—where about 60 percent of the population is now homeless, according to a report from NPR—three schools were flooded.

Cori Rojas, a school teacher from Puerto Rico, reacts after arriving with her two children at JFK airport in New York on Sept. 26. Rojas and her children fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, and will now stay with in-laws in Queens. Her husband, who works for a global insurance firm, opted to stay behind.

Windows were smashed at schools in Guayama, on the southern coast of the island, she said. In San Juan, downed electrical lines were a problem, she said.

“Some of [the schools] you cannot get into at all,” Diaz said, because it was too dangerous, with electrical poles and lines having fallen onto the buildings or on the surrounding grounds.

See also: School Districts Ready to Enroll Puerto Rican Students

But while residents and relief groups struggle to get even basic supplies to communities flooded or blocked by debris, the long-term federal supports for the U.S. territory are likely to be even harder to come by.

President Trump is expected to visit the island next Tuesday, two weeks after the storm hit. The administration has faced criticism that the relief response has been slower for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria than after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida.

“What is catastrophic and awful is … not simply the effects of Maria on the island, but the lack of response by the federal government. This is Donald Trump’s Katrina moment,” Randi Weingarten, the AFT’s national president, said referring to former President George W. Bush’s widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, which triggered devastating flooding in New Orleans in 2005.

But early Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that President Trump had waived the Jones Act, a maritime shipping law that critics said was delaying relief supplies to Puerto Rico. And the U.S. Department of Education on Friday announced it would provide regulatory flexibility during the 2017-18 school year for schools affected by all of the hurricanes this summer, including extending grant competition deadlines and relaxing requirements for matching funds. It suggested ways for schools to use technology to continue students’ learning when school buildings cannot be used—though that won’t be of much use to students in Puerto Rico for the near future.

“If we get water and we get electricity, we can start,” said Diaz, who has no running water at her own home and has had to use water from a tank. “We can clean the schools. We can prepare them [for students],” she said. “The teachers will do that. … We can’t clean or do anything if we don’t have water.”

Stability Needed

Recovering schools will be tough, because Puerto Rico’s education system was teetering even before the storms.

This summer, the territory closed 179 schools in the wake of a $120 billion debt and pension crisis. Even before that, the island had lost 27 percent of its students and 18 percent of its teachers in the last decade, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. Just before school started this fall, about 1,000 teachers had to be relocated because 824 schools had lower enrollment than predicted and 273 schools had more students, according to the island’s education department.

Only 62 percent of students graduated high school in Puerto Rico in 2012 (the last time the Education Department made the data public), nearly 20 percentage points lower than the average graduation rate for the mainland United States at the time. Among 8th graders, 94 percent performed below basic in math on the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress; virtually none scored proficient. Puerto Rico’s education agency had launched plans to break the island’s single school district into seven local education systems, but those were not all fully up and running before the storms hit.

As a territory, Puerto Rico has less access to many federal education funds and programs, though its children are U.S. citizens. For example, while more than half of school-age children on the island live in poverty, its federal Title I funding for disadvantaged students is capped, as is its funding for Title III grants for English-language learners, grants for homeless student supports, and even supplemental food support, according to a 2016 report by a Congressional task force on Puerto Rico. Child welfare programs, such as child-related tax credits and utilities supports, are also limited.

Even when it comes to collecting information, the National Center for Education Statistics provides an overview profile of education data for states and the District of Columbia, but not for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or other territories.

The local networks that have been working to improve education on the island have also been disrupted. Jill Weber, the director of the federal Regional Educational Laboratory for the Northeast and Islands, said she was “deeply concerned about the devastating situations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” where Weber said she has reached out to the school officials she works with, but has been unable to reach most of them. The group is planning ways to help districts rebuild education infrastructure once the basic infrastructure is back on line.

Losing the System

It’s also been difficult for the teachers’ union in San Juan to reach its members—telephone service is spotty at best and the office generator only runs a few hours a day to conserve diesel. The situation for those they have reached has been grim: “They don’t have gas, they don’t have water, they don’t have electricity,” Diaz said. “You have some that lost their houses.”

While policymakers have already expressed concern over storm damage to Puerto Rico’s agriculture industry, long-term school closures may play even more havoc with the island’s economy. On an island of 3 million people, education and social services employ nearly 1 in 4 adults.

Elizabeth Morales, a school teacher in Bayamón, the urban area surrounding San Juan, is one of them. Hurricane Maria utterly destroyed her 7th-floor apartment, and with schools in the town closed indefinitely, she is no longer being paid. Her sister-in-law, Beth Lewis of Tampa, Fla., has launched a crowd-funding campaign to help get her off the island.

Morales won’t be the only one leaving, if a recovery drags out, Diaz said.

“I have heard many people here—not only the teachers—that want to leave,” she said. “If the conditions continue like [they are] now, we will lose more teachers. More teachers will likely go away.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in briefings that the power grid and other infrastructure may be out for weeks or months, and school districts in the mainland United States are already bracing for waves of incoming students to come from the island as soon as transportation is more stable.

“Right now, Orange County public schools is proactively working on developing plans to support these families during these difficult times,” said Shari Bobinski, a spokeswoman for the central Florida district, which is expecting to receive students from the territories. The Orange County district, which includes the city of Orlando, is still recovering from damages it sustained from Hurricane Irma.

But Bobinski said that the district will try to help students make the transition to mainland schools “as smooth as possible,” including waiving some enrollment documents and giving the students a code in the system to help funnel supports to their families, such as counseling and food.”

Research Analyst Alex Harwin contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as In Devastated Puerto Rico, Reopening of Schools Is Far Off

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