As students begin the school year nearly one year after Hurricane Maria, major challenges with the island’s education system may have been overlooked by recovery efforts. These issues, including lingering damage and population decline, must be addressed to restore stability for children in Puerto Rico, and build a safe environment for families as the island continues to rebuild.
Puerto Rico’s children continue to face three main challenges:
1. Lingering damage to schools, homes, and infrastructure
Schools alone accounted for $142 million in damage following Maria, according to an estimate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Dozens of schools still need major repairs for damage, such as leaky roofs, mold, and unusable bathrooms, and await funding for recovery. Many schools are also operating on a partial-day schedule because of electricity, water, and sewage problems. And throughout the island, power outages, unsafe roads, and unrepaired damage to houses continue to be an issue.
2. Population decline
The Puerto Rico Department of Education closed nearly a quarter of its 865 schools this past summer, prompted largely by postdisaster population decline.
More than 135,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island, and of those, 25,000 were students. Most migrated to Florida and the Northeast corridor. For students who remain in Puerto Rico and have returned to school, the absence of friends and family likely has a mental health impact.
3. Mental and social instability
Educators in Puerto Rico have noted that instability at school and recovery challenges at home have made it hard for local youth to bounce back from Hurricane Maria.
Wanda Calderon, a teacher at José Campeche High School in San Lorenzo stated, “Students thought they would just be without classes for a few days…. What they didn’t expect was what came after the hurricane: They were left without classes, without houses, without food, the family dispersed, no internet, no refrigerator, no power…. All that creates a ticking time bomb in our students.”
How can we reestablish stability for children in Puerto Rico?
Stability is central to children’s well-being and development into healthy adults.
Schools can play an integral role in stabilizing children following a disaster, helping them return to routine activities, reconnect with peers and caring adults, and access social support services and programs. Schools can also maximize the potential to incorporate disaster recovery issues into the educational experience.
Restore schools quickly and completely
Returning to school can reestablish a sense of normalcy, but it can introduce additional physical vulnerabilities. The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave America’s school infrastructure a D+ rating because many schools have crumbling buildings and insufficient funding to restore them. These infrastructure issues can be exacerbated after disasters, as officials seek to resume school without fully attending to all safety concerns.
FEMA recently published a guide to help schools develop a comprehensive approach to natural hazards safety by engaging local children, parents, education professionals, businesses, and community organizations. Other resources for supporting school safety include the Comprehensive School Safety Guide and the Youth Emergency Preparedness Curriculum.
Engage youth as architects of their own recovery
Youth engagement in disaster preparedness and recovery can strengthen social ties, foster a sense of community, and include diverse perspectives in community building.
Recent research examining the impacts of disasters on children has shifted from focusing on children’s vulnerability to promoting their agency. Studies have bolstered evidence on the meaningful and rich role that youth can play in disaster resilience, emphasizing their capacity for engaging in tasks like distributing aid, providing peer counseling, sharing educational disaster information with friends and family, organizing disaster drills, and participating in planning and rebuilding.
For example, 15-year-old Puerto Rico resident Salvador Gomez Colón helped raise funds to purchase solar lamps for residents who went without power and delivered them with friends, family, and other volunteers. We must continue to foster youth engagement, particularly as we continue to face more extreme weather events and a changing climate.