Puerto Rico’s schools struggle to recover from hurricane destruction

By Mel Leonor, POLITICO

Recovery remains out of reach for nearly all of Puerto Rico’s hurricane-battered public school system, which means many kids likely won’t resume their education for weeks to come.

Almost all of Puerto Rico’s schools remain without electricity or running water, like most structures on the island, which President Donald Trump toured on Tuesday.

Among 1,112 public schools, just over 450 are accounted for, which means more than half haven’t yet been surveyed as to their condition. Teachers and school administrators in the U.S. territory are struggling to get back on track, following the devastating landfall of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20.

“There are many schools with which we have had no communication. We don’t know what has happened with those teachers,” said Grichelle Toledo, an English teacher and secretary of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the largest teachers’ union on the island. Puerto Rico has about 30,000 teachers and 350,000 students.

“We have schools without windows and destroyed courtyards. We have schools with downed trees and power lines. … I can’t visualize the return to normalcy.”

In an attempt to kick start the recovery, education officials have asked students near the approximately 22 schools with running water and basic supplies to report back to school on Wednesday for informal classes. Teachers who are able to report back to their schools — or any school they have access to — were asked to return this past Monday to prepare to receive students.

“In Puerto Rico, schools have a central role in the lives of the community and that reality makes keeping school closed a daunting prospect,” Education Secretary Julia Keleher told POLITICO. “Attendance will likely be very limited. What I do think you’re going to see is a positive space where people can come together. I think the kids will respond positively to seeing a teacher. They can have a hot meal and be in a different space, while their parents can take care of things.”

These schools with running water will function as community centers for at least the next two weeks — providing families and teachers access to food, social services and help filing forms with FEMA.

A guide sent by the Education Department to administrators and teachers tells them to prepare for classrooms full of students of different ages and grades. School leaders are asked to quickly identify students who will need special services.

The guide also asks teachers to help students set up journals where they can write about their experiences before, during and after the pass of Hurricane Maria, and to engage students in activities where they can talk about the challenges faced by their communities.

Keleher said she is encouraging educators to help students develop community service projects to repair the destruction on the island.

“We’re going to ask, ‘During the hurricane, what did you see? What is a project that we could create to help the community?'” Keleher said. “This isn’t part of our regularly scheduled programming, but access to that dynamic will go a long way to help [our students] recover.”

Teachers who report to work will also be asked to fill out forms listing their personal needs, as part of an emergency hotline set up by the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico in partnership with its affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers. Toledo said teachers who submit requests along with evidence of the need will receive small dollar amounts to address “immediate needs.”

These schools offering services are also the ones Keleher expects to reopen for classes on Oct. 16 — an optimistic target date.

As for the rest of the schools in the island that haven’t yet even been contacted, Keleher said the Education Department is dispatching teams of facilities specialists to log data on the damage this week.

“Schools are not going to open all at one time,” Keleher said, adding that when more than 85 percent of schools in a region are ready to open, classes will begin for those students.

In the meantime, Keleher has asked the U.S. Department of Education for technical assistance on rebuilding the school system, and for access to Recovery Act funds, and added that a recent call with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was productive.

“She gave me an opportunity to share what we need,” Keleher said.

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