More than 3 months after Maria, Puerto Rico’s schools still struggling

by | Jan 3, 2018 | Headlines, Puerto Rico | Comments

On November 27,2017, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) completed their last school assessment in Puerto Rico. The school assessments were completed by their Infrastructure Assessment Team, the purpose of which were to document and assess the damage caused by Hurricane Maria to the schools on the islands. The assessments of 1,131 schools will be used by the Department of Education of Puerto Rico as they make important decisions about the future of the schools. These reports will help them make tough calls on which schools to close permanently, which to repair permanently, and which ones will request temporary repairs from FEMA.

The assessments took a long time to complete. Conditions were not ideal, and some schools had to be visited several times. Some were found locked, leaving crews unable to enter for the assessment. Others were only open to the crews during limited hours. Still others in more remote areas of the islands posed difficulties to access. Damaged roads, landslides, and road closures kept crews from being able to complete assessments in a prompt fashion. Other times, assessments were hampered by a lack of available translators to interpret for school officials. The teams had to improvise, and once, a young student was able to act as a translator for the team.

The local government is continuing to work to certify schools that are getting the correct permits and certifications to be opened. Schools are still being inspected by the Public Buildings Authority (AEP in Spanish) and the Office for the Improvement of Public Schools (OMEP in Spanish). These authorities are conducting visits to ensure that there are no major risks present at the facilities. A system called “Certify My School” has been created to streamline the process. Directors of inspected schools that have yet to be opened must review the reports made by the USACE, then send a signed letter that accepts the findings and identifies an improvement plan. The authorities want to be certain that schools will make the necessary changes to ensure the safety of the structures.

This statement, made by the Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, appears on the Department of Education website: “Each school must present its plan of concrete actions that would allow us to be sure that schools can operate without posing risks for the school community in general. These evaluations are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of students and employees…As an agency manager, my responsibility and commitment is that the campuses are inspected to protect the safety of students and other personnel before they formally enter them occupying all spaces; it is impossible to close your eyes and carry out a process without recognizing the relevance of everyone’s safety. This is a dynamic process and we will be consistently adding schools that will be able to open their classrooms to students as long as they are authorized, again, with the safety of the entire school community as a priority.”

The list of schools being opened is increasing steadily according to the Department of Education’s website. Of the schools that have been opened already, many have areas roped off to signal damaged areas. In other schools, some repairs have been made by staff together with the local communities. Schools that have opened without electricity run on an abbreviated schedule, open from just 7:30 till 12:30, but a half day is better than not at all.

When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it had about 1/10 the number of the schools that Puerto Rico has. New Orleans, being a mainland state, got more attention by the press, people, and Congress than Puerto Rico has. New Orleans was able to get $1.4 billion in aid from Congress to help students and schools recover and rebuild after Katrina. A large section of that was called “restart aid”. The $750 million dedicated to “restart aid” was to be spend on new textbooks, technology, renting trailers to be used as temporary schools, and to redevelop the curriculum. Yet the costs of major renovations and rebuilding were excluded from the package. Keleher has put that package on her wish-list for Puerto Rican schools, yet, considering the complexity and scope of the situation, this amount won’t be adequate for Puerto Rico. There has been some talk of looking at the New Orleans Post Katrina model of opening the islands schools to become charter schools or to privatize, but so far nothing is set in stone.

One of the most difficult things for Puerto Rican schools will be to avoid the dreaded ‘brain drain’. Given the uncertainty of the future of schools, and the availability of teaching jobs, combined with the general destruction, many teachers are fleeing the islands. New York, Florida, and Texas, the states that have seen the largest influx of Puerto Rican transplants, have started looking at ways to streamline the teacher certification process for Puerto Rican teachers looking for jobs. Florida in particular is excited to hire Puerto Rican teachers, as the state has a shortage of teachers. The only problem is that the certification requirements and curriculum don’t match up, creating some bureaucratic problems to sort out. New York is offering teaching certificates valid for one year for teachers from Puerto Rico who meet basic teaching requirements and are certified in Puerto Rico. Florida has set up booths in airports to recruit both students and teachers to their local schools.

With opportunities opening up on the mainland, it might incentivize more teachers to leave. However, as of the beginning of November, there had only been a smattering of hires in Florida, none in New York, and Texas was still in the process of looking at streamlining their process for Puerto Rican teachers. Teachers in Puerto Rico also fear that, if Puerto Rico follows the post Katrina model of school reubiling, that they will lose their jobs anyway. New Orleans ended up firing many of their previous teachers during their rebuilding process.