U.S. schools are preparing for Puerto Rican kids fleeing Maria

September 30, 2017, 8:40am

Days after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico and left it leveled, Ileana Cintron called her brother on the island. She wanted to know: Did he plan to keep her preteen niece with him until Puerto Rico rebuilt — or would he send her to live with Cintron in Massachusetts, so she could go back to school?

“That decision is very hard,” said Cintron, who works as chief of family and community engagement for Holyoke Public Schools, a western Massachusetts school district that’s 80 percent comprised of students of Puerto Rican descent. “It’s very complicated and very individual to each family, based on the sense of support that they feel they may have over here.”

But, she added, “Things are gonna be bad for a while.”

In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, many Puerto Rican parents may soon agree to offers like Cintron’s — with little water, food, or fuel left on the island, its entire infrastructure is basically destroyed, and schools will likely be out of commission for weeks, if not months.

Devastated schools

“The amount of water was so significant that it filtrated through the roof and damaged the classrooms,” said Yanil Terón, whose sister is a school teacher in the mountainous city of Caguas. “From computers to books, everything has been damaged. So that happened even in the schools that are in the cities, which are better schools. And you can imagine in the towns.

READ: Disease-spreading mosquitoes could soon overrun Puerto Rico

Even among the schools that weren’t damaged, Terón said, many can’t be used to educate children because they’ve been converted into shelters to house families.

“Then the other issue is, school teachers, the administrators, that they themselves may not have water or power so they don’t know how they’re going to the school,” Terón went on.

While many of school districts and cities up and down the eastern seaboard have pledged to accept students fleeing Maria’s devastation into their classrooms, preparing to do so isn’t easy for both schools and their prospective students.

“Homeless” kids

Because they’ve been displaced by a disaster, and may be living without their parents or in an unstable environment, some Puerto Rican students may be recognized as “homeless” under federal guidelines. That designation guarantees them extra help, like money for meals and clothes, and relaxes some of the usual paperwork requirements, such as proof of residency or immunization records.

“We understand that they may not be available at that time,” said Lorena Hitchcock, spokesperson for Orlando, Florida’s Orange County Public Schools, which already enrolls more than 10,000 students who were born in Puerto Rico and spoke Spanish as their first language.

“The trauma that folks are experiencing on the island is something else.”

But helping students will take more work than just checking a box on a legal form. Kids will have to grapple with everything from taking standardized tests in English to shivering through cold winters, while going through puberty. Plus, education in Puerto Rico looks and feels very different than most mainland schools: Nearly 200 schools were forced to close earlier this year, thanks both to Puerto Rico’s overwhelming debt and to reported mismanagement, including abandoned schools, teacher shortages, and rat infestations.

Both Hitchcock and Cintron said that their communities have already started to organize donation drives for incoming students. They also hope to plan to provide counseling services not just for kids, but for their entire families.

READ: Red tape is keeping aid from desperate Puerto Ricans

Funding, however, could also be a problem. If students enroll at Orange County Public Schools after Oct. 13 — as many estimate they will, since many likely won’t be able to leave the island for weeks — the district can’t ask for extra cash from the state to accommodate them until February, Hitchcock said. District officials aren’t yet sure what they’ll do if their schools need more money.

“We have capacity for the kids that we have, and we’re a little bit stretched thin because of the complexities [of the] social and emotional needs,” added Cintron. Holyoke School District is already reaching out to behavioral health specialists. “The trauma that folks are experiencing on the island is something else.”

Brain drain

Ultimately, school officials won’t know exactly what they’re dealing until these Puerto Rican students actually arrive. One thing, however, is clear: Puerto Rico must also grapple with the possibility that such a mass exodus could result in an entire generation permanently leaving the island behind.

“We [have had] an economic crisis for a while now. We have [been] seeing a lot of brain drain,” explained Terón, who is also the executive director at the Center for Latino Progress. She’s taken care of her sister’s two children for years — her nephew even once moved back to the island, but returned to the mainland to find better educational and economic opportunities.

He’s not alone: The island’s decade-long economic crisis has led huge numbers of Puerto Ricans to move to the U.S. mainland; as early as 2013, the number of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland outnumbered those on the island by more than a million.

“Now, we’re going to see a generation of children and youth moving into the mainland in temporary places, to get an education, but you know what’s going to happen?” Terón said. “They’re going to stay.”

Cover: Juan Rojas, right, of Queens, hugs his 4-year-old grandson Elias Rojas, as his daughter-in-law Cori Rojas, left, carries her daughter Lilly, 3, through the terminal at JFK airport after Cori arrived on a flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)