On September 20, exactly nine months ago, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico—devastating nearly every industry on the island. We don’t often hear about the storm’s impact on schools. And actually, we’ve stopped hearing much about the island altogether. But it’s important to note that Hurricane Maria interrupted the education of the many thousands of students who attend school in Puerto Rico. In addition to damaged school buildings and a lack of electricity, Maria’s impact has meant that hundreds of schools are closing before the 2018-2019 school year because it is no longer financially viable to keep them open.
According to Education Week, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education plans to close 263 schools this year. That represents 25 percent of all of the island’s public schools. The official cause of the closings? “Falling enrollment and the government’s long-term financial woes.” And, of course, that cataclysmic, once-in-a-lifetime Category 4 hurricane that the island has yet to recover from.
The closings mean many changes for children and their families. There are approximately 270 schools that have been chosen as receiving schools which will take on the students from closing schools. But not all the schools are near one another. The average distance, by car, between the closing and receiving schools is more than 2 miles. Yet, there are also 91 schools where the distance between the closing and receiving school is anywhere from 3-10 miles. There is no word on whether or not transportation will be made available to cover the distance for families that cannot drive their children to the new schools. If not, this will prove incredibly burdensome to families—especially those that are low-income and do not have the time, financial or other necessary resources to get their children to and from their new schools which are far away.
These closures also impact younger students the most. Of all the 263 schools set to close, 85 percent of them include a K-5 grade. The island’s Secretary of Education thinks that closing schools is a good thing. She has said that the closings will “guarantee access to books and teachers and resources in a positive, inviting learning environment.” But teachers unions and some parents disagree. They say “the closures will drive away families and teachers, as well as upend communities.” This all remains to be seen. It’s never an easy transition when schools close, teachers lose their jobs or are transferred, and families are forced to endure commutes they never signed up for. And many fear this is a move to privatize schools and move toward a charter school model on the island. However, it is almost certain that teachers unions will not accept this without a fight. This is likely going to result in many clashes over the next few months and even years. Meanwhile, students in Puerto Rico will remain impacted by both the natural disaster that struck their island and an ongoing man-made financial one.