Over 22,000 Puerto Rican Students Are Out of School Since Hurricane María
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Over 22,000 Puerto Rican Students Are Out of School Since Hurricane María

As enrollment shrinks after the storm, 1 in 13 kids across the island won't be back to school.
January 30, 2018, 7:30pm

Schools and universities in Puerto Rico were not spared by Hurricane María. On the contrary. They were plunged into an even deeper crisis. Following Hurricane María, many schools were left in ruins, turned into shelters, and many more forced to run without electricity or clean water, issues that continue to affect the island in January 2018, more than three months on.

As a result of the storm and the island’s persistent crises, school enrollment in Puerto Rico has shrunk by some 22,350 students since Hurricane María hit, according to the island’s Department of Education. That’s one out of 13 kids gone. With the situation on the island — still — lacking the support it needs, it’s unsure whether they’ll ever come back.

School Closures in Puerto Rico

And it’s not just the children that have had to flee to the mainland, that are having to change schools.

"We definitely have to close schools," Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico's secretary of education told NPR. "There's about 184 schools that have fewer than 150 kids.” Fearing a cut in federal funding, she feels that there will not be enough resources for schools, unless some are closed and kids transferred.

For these children, and others, who have already had to change school in recent years, lost their homes, and whose classmates and friends have left to the mainland as a consequence of the hurricane, more disruption is not good news.

And it won’t be the first time schools are shut down to cut costs. At the end of the last school year, the Puerto Rican education department closed 167 schools.

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For these children, and others, who have already had to change school in recent years, lost their homes, and whose classmates and friends have left to the mainland as a consequence of the hurricane, more disruption is not good news.

In fact, storm-struck communities did everything to stop closures following the hurricane. They cleared the debris and transformed schools into safe spaces for children, where kids could eat a hot meal, get together and receive much-needed trauma support. And so, the news of more school closures, has not been welcomed.

But Puerto Rico’s central government is more than $120 billion in combined bond and pension debt, and has filed for a bankruptcy-like procedure. And with no sign of the debt being wiped out, things are not looking up.

Some say that Keleher is using to hurricane to speed up closures. "Our Secretary of Education has a plan to shut down schools," Mercedes Martinez, the president of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation, one of the island's teachers unions told NPR. "She wanted to privatize, she wanted to close more, but the communities have fought back.”

The threat of privatisation in Puerto Rico is real. In fact, the island’s Public-Private Partnerships Authority director spoke about the benefits of leveraging federal money with companies interested in the privatisation of public infrastructure just one month after the storm.

Puerto Rican Students in Florida

Despite the fact Florida and Texas were struck too, by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the states have, on their side, opened their doors to students from Puerto Rico, who today are enrolled in local schools thanks to waivers, which have eased enrollment.

Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, alongside other Florida school district leaders called on state officials to lower roadblocks to the graduation stage. The aim: make sure students set to graduate on time in Puerto Rico, weren’t held back because of the storm.

And it’s not all bad. His campaign was heard.

“We are excited and pleased to announce that we have confirmation for graduation requirements for displaced Puerto Rican high school juniors and seniors to substantially complete the Puerto Rico high school curriculum and earn a Puerto Rico high school diploma if they choose this option,” K-12 chancellor Hershel Lyons announced in December 2017. This means that 11th or 12th grade students enrolled in a Florida public school can still earn a high school diploma from Puerto Rico while completing the rest of their work in Florida.

But more needs to be done.

“From September to late December, nearly 300,000 Puerto Ricans emigrated to the mainland; most of them — 270,000 — moved to Central Florida. This is one of the biggest migration waves in the history of America,” Carlos Mendez-Nuñez, speaker of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives wrote in the Orlando Sentinel, calling for more action, specifically when it comes to education. “In Puerto Rico, the new school year starts in early August, which means the children who migrated to the Sunshine State started classes with several disadvantages, including lack of time to prepare; limited, if any, financial resources to purchase school materials; and a completely unfamiliar educational system.”

Universities Can Help Rebuild

It’s not only school-aged kids’ education that took a toll following Hurricane María. University students have suffered too.

Before Hurricane Maria hit, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), the island’s largest public university, had already been singled out by the Fiscal Control Board (imposed on Puerto Rico in 2016 due to its financial crisis) for steep budget cuts.

“Campuses on the mainland can work directly with counterparts on the island with the help of students forced to study elsewhere."

These included: campus and academic program eliminations and consolidations, tuition spikes, and payroll reductions. Students had opposed and gone on strike for two months in May 2017. And today, the situation is, because of the hurricane, even worse. The campus was severely damaged and while universities on the mainland have been welcoming students with grants and in-state fees, a lot more can be done.

In fact, some believe that universities, both on the mainland and in Puerto Rico, should be harnessed to help impact positive change in Puerto Rico.

“Rebuilding could create opportunities for positive change,” Mónica Feliú-Mójer, Director of Communications and Science Outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico wrote.

“Campuses on the mainland can work directly with counterparts on the island with the help of students forced to study elsewhere,’’ Andre Perry a fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on education, structural inequality and race, told VICE Impact. “As the territory slowly builds capacity to take on volunteers, faculty and students can base service and academic projects on specific needs.”

This idea, wouldn't be novice. Perry a former professor at the University of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, had first hand experience with this, and believes it can work. “Just as campuses across the U.S. rallied to provide support after hurricane Katrina, the same can be done for Puerto Rico. Spring and fall break trips can assist P.R. in the years to come.”

And several university are exploring this idea.

Vita Rabinowitz the executive vice chancellor at City University New York City, which hosts the Centre of Puerto Rican studies, is looking to do just this and plans to set up an exchange program with the 11-campus University of Puerto Rico system.

“We want a more genuine exchange, university wide, and we’re working together to do that,” Rabinowitz said.

In the meantime, what can be done?

- Tell your elected representatives that there is an urgent need for federal resources in the form of grants to provide for the education sector of Puerto Rico. More funds, means schools are less likely to close.

- Support La Unidad Latina Foundation who is helping local schools stay open Puerto Rico.

- Volunteer. Browse here for volunteer opportunities in support of disaster relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts in Puerto Rico.