Puerto Rico's schools have seen various shutdowns in recent years from hurricanes, a powerful earthquake and a global pandemic. Now students and families are preparing for another setback in student achievement in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona.
On Friday, Hurricane Fiona was on its way toward Northeastern Canada after causing heavy downpour and torrential waves in Bermuda and leaving Puerto Rico with damaging winds and torrential rains that led to devastating infrastructure collapse, widespread blackouts, detrimental flooding and at least four human deaths in its path. The full scope of Hurricane Fiona’s damage to Puerto Rican school buildings was still being measured and many that were unaffected were being used to shelter the displaced.
A majority of the island’s schools, particularly in the center, west and south of the island, remained closed Friday. The Department of Education released a list of about 200 schools that were eligible to open Friday because they have water and electricity. Secretary of Education Eliezer Ramos Parés told Telemundo Puerto Rico the department’s hope is for about 80% of schools across the island to be open Monday.
But not all students or teachers will be ready for a quick return to school: Thousands of students and families in the hardest hit regions of the island were living without electricity, water, internet and essential services.
“Back to school comes with a lot of complications. The power situation - restored - but not enough to run AC for students. Not all kids are back in class even with schools opened,” said Karina Martinez of Corazón Latino, a national nonprofit organization that plans to assess the damage of the hurricane and urgent needs of the people there.
Some are worried about what comes next.
Teacher Lillian Bayron Ferreira this week convened family members outside Luis Muñoz Rivera elementary school in Santurce to give them study guides to help guard against the students in her special education class falling behind on learning the alphabet.
“I am concerned that children continue to lag behind in learning after the earthquake, Hurricane Maria, the COVID-19 pandemic and now Hurricane Fiona,” Bayron Ferreira said.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona vowed this week to help Puerto Rico's schools recover from Fiona once the damage is fully assessed.
“I am heartbroken to see the devastation that Hurricane Fiona caused for the island and the people of Puerto Rico. Our students, families, and educators are facing another natural disaster—which, compounded by the challenges of the pandemic—is creating collective trauma that we must work together, across systems, to address,” he said in a statement provided to USA TODAY. “I am in close contact with island leadership. I have offered the full support of the U.S. Department of Education to assist in the recovery effort in every way that we can.”
Will schools reopen in Puerto Rico?
Bayron Ferreira, a delegate of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association, is one of a few teachers who returned this week to work.
Other teachers and their students were waiting in uncertainty for Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rafael Pierluisi Urrutia and Ramos Parés to announce when their schools could resume, Bayron Ferreira said Wednesday.
The last several years have been especially hard on student learning. As Cristobal Jiménez, 49, a community leader in Fajardo and stepfather of two stepdaughters who are now freshmen in college, put it with a chuckle “we don’t know what normal is any more.”
“Since Maria, we haven’t had a normal year. If you are considering educational loss because of Fiona: We had Maria and a really weird academic year in 2017-2018, then in 2019-2020 there was the pandemic, then the Southwest experience of the earthquakes and then Fiona. All academic years have had a dramatic event that has triggered or altered the academic year," he said.
The effects of Hurricanes Maria and Irma on the infrastructure of several school buildings and student populations led to the closure and abandonment of hundreds of schools, according to a May 2019 report from the Center for Puerto Rico Studies at Hunter College in New York City.
Schools in Puerto Rico were already underperforming compared with national averages. Fourth grade students in Puerto Rico performed significantly lower on math assessments in 2019, the most recent data available, with an average score of 185, which is considered below basic. The national average score is 240, which is considered proficient.
Ana Trujillo, Corazón Latino's project manager, said school leaders will need to consider alternatives to learning, such as remote learning where there’s access to the internet. They must also address the mental health needs of students, she said.
“There’s a lot of fear and still trauma from what we experienced in Maria. A lot of low-income families experienced significant loss in Maria. Just the mention of a hurricane triggers PTSD,” Trujillo said. “It’s not just students, it’s the teachers, it’s how we all faced that experience and how it affected individuals or as members of the family.”
What help is there for Puerto Rico?
The U.S. Department of Education in recent years issued grants to support Puerto Rico schools in times of disaster.
In 2018, following Hurricanes Maria and Irma, the Department of Education financially supported Puerto Rico schools through four education recovery grants. The grants were aimed at assisting school administrators in restarting school operations, reopening schools and enrolling students, mental health initiatives and supporting students displaced by the hurricanes. Following a powerful earthquake on the island in 2020, the department also gave Puerto Rico schools more than $96,000 to fund mental health services for students.
Aid groups have already stepped up to collect items such as non-perishable food, gallons of water, water filters, blue tarps, solar lanterns, diapers, feminine hygiene products, fans, radios and mosquito repellant to disperse to school kids, teachers and their families facing desperation and anguish.
Yamilin Rivera from Taller Salud, a Loíza-based feminist nonprofit organization, said Friday that helpers were "in first responder mode" and delivering some of those goods to communities affected.
Bayron Ferreira said she is preparing to help her students recover mentally from another crisis. She plans to share a story called Esmeraldina, "which is about a hurricane and how the animals of a forest prepared for its arrival and then how they reforested the forest, their home, again," with her students upon their return.
"I have several dynamic activities, where children can express their feelings and emotions due to the passage of the hurricane," she said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane Fiona update: How are Puerto Rico's schools doing?