Puerto Rico is shutting down hundreds of schools after an uphill battle to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria that worsened the island’s prolonged economic crisis.
Overall enrollment in Puerto Rico has dropped by more than 38,700 since last May, the Secretary of Education Julia Keleher told the Associated Press. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico is bankrupt, entrenched in $120 billion of debt, which doesn’t include the cost of recovering from the hurricane. As a result, the Department of Education is closing 283 schools in hopes of saving $303 million over the next five years.
The move follows sweeping educational reforms spearheaded by Gov. Ricardo Rossello and Keleher since January aimed at fixing two of the island’s biggest issues: dropping enrollment numbers and skyrocketing debt. Rossello estimated in November that the hurricane would cost the island $95 billion.
Keleher said no teachers would be laid off as a result of the closures and that they would instead be reassigned to other schools. The island is keeping 828 schools open, down from about 1,200.
“We know it’s a difficult and painful process,” Keleher said. “Our children deserve the best education that we are capable of giving them taking into account Puerto Rico’s fiscal reality.”
Groups of teachers, activists, and parents opposed to the closures fear the plan limits students’ access to education. They also argue officials are capitalizing on the hurricane to push a longer-term agenda of privatizing education in Puerto Rico.
"This is like killing 300 communities,”Aida Díaz, the president of the Puerto Rico’s teacher’s union told magazine Education Week. "We're going to have communities that are not going to have any schools. The only place they have to meet is the school."
Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have left since the Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017. Roughly 11,500 students from Puerto Rico left to enroll in schools in Florida alone, according to data compiled by CNN.
Cover image: A view of the desks filled with mud in one the classrooms of the Luis M. Santiago school which remains closed while today the Department of Education resumes classes during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. (David Santiago/Miami Herald via AP)