US Virgin Islands schools struggling to return to normalcy
Since Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit the US Virgin Islands in September of 2017, legislators and educators on the islands have been struggling with several issues related to the functionality of the islands’ school systems. On January 17, The USVI Legislature’s Committee on Education, Youth, and Recreation met at the Capitol Building to discuss the status of the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDOE). After Federal agencies such as the US Army Corps of Engineers conducted assessments of all schools, it was determined that roughly 2.9 million square feet of the public instructional education system incurred unrepairable damage, and that the current estimated cost to repair damaged schools is approximately $1.2 billion. At this meeting, Senator Jean Forde noted 3 main issues concerning public schools. Forde cited that “there are split sessions, some teachers have resigned, and some students relocated to the mainland.” At this session, Sharon McCollum, the Commissioner of VIDOE, also shared her concerns, stating that scarcity of both materials and A&E Contractors has become a significant challenge, as well as the problem of severe roof damage that has lead to the growth of mold, making many of these buildings uninhabitable. Not only were the structures themselves destroyed, but many of the educational materials and supplies inside the schools were also deemed to be too damaged or unsafe for use, thus compounding this issue further.
Also discussed in this meeting was the possible use of temporary facilities such as modular structures and sprung structures. The VIDOE stated that the modular structures will house temporary classrooms, while the purpose of the sprung structures is to house support facilities such as administrative offices, curriculum centers, gymnasiums, auditoriums, kitchens, and cafeterias. As of now, the installment of temporary structures is set to be completed within 6 months, and when asked by Senator Janelle Sarauw about the negotiation process between the VIDOE and FEMA as it applies to the time frame for the building of these modular structures, Territorial Director for Capital Projects and Facilities, James Bernier, said, “This process is ongoing. The Department is continuously submitting documents to FEMA upon request.”
Many teachers are leaving the US Virgin Islands for better pay and opportunities, but this exodus of educators did not begin as a result of the hurricanes. In a budget hearing on August 19, 2017, McCollum stated that the VIDOE saw a reduction of over $10 million in its budget between fiscal years 2017-2018. She noted that 81 teachers left the Department between 2016-2017, and that the schools had been relying heavily on substitute teachers to fill in these gaps. As of the beginning of this month, there are now a staggering 137 teacher vacancies. What is the main reason then as to why teachers leave the US Virgin Islands? McCollum said that “Our teachers are not satisfied with their financial outlook and years of stagnant wages and are simply leaving the territory.”
The US Virgin Islands school system has been supported by some federal aid money, but it has mainly been sustained by USVI taxpayers. David North, a Fellow of the Center for Immigration Studies, argues that the US Virgin Islands were on the brink of bankruptcy after decades of overspending and under-taxing businesses. He also points out that the USVI Department of Education has been “remarkably unsuccessful in writing applications for federal education funds and spending them within federal guidelines — even when dealing with non-competitive grants.” All of these issues directly affect the well-being of educators, often leaving them no choice but to leave to the mainland for better opportunities as a means to support themselves financially.
It is still yet unclear as to how Congress is going to allocate much needed money to those still residing on the Islands. It is no secret that the US Virgin Islands have suffered many financial setbacks in recent years, and currently, the economic future of the islands is in serious jeopardy following the devastating storms in September, and unfortunately, school children, teachers, and parents are the ones suffering as a result.