After Hurricanes, USVI Residents Choose Hope

After three devastating hurricanes struck the Caribbean, the Department of Education undertook a series of actions to support the U.S. Virgin Islands through their recovery process. As part of that effort, ED staff committed to travelling to the Islands to provide resources, assistance, and expertise.

In November, as the ED team began their descent into the Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, the large-scale devastation left by Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria became alarmingly clear. Once lushly green, the landscape had turned muddy and brown. Roads were washed out entirely; buildings were roofless or pushed off their foundations; parts of the islands were left in total darkness. Businesses — the lifeblood of an economy so reliant on tourism — were shuttered.

The team, which included Iyauta Green (Risk Management Service), Joy Medley (Office of School Support and Rural Programs), and Mark Robinson (Risk Management Service), then began a five day trip to assess the damage that the storms had left behind.

They also spoke with administrators — including private school headmasters — teachers, students, and staff at the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE) administration, including Commissioner Sharon McCollum. From them, ED staff learned about the many needs facing the Islands and their students.

The storms hadn’t just created immediate, physical interruptions. They’d also halted progress toward a larger priority for the USVI: to diversify the workforce. Dr. McCollum had long wanted to keep the local economy competitive, and was concerned about students leaving the island — and taking their skills and talents with them. Instead, post-hurricanes, nearly 10 percent of students had left the USVI to continue, or finish, their education.

And students still on the Islands were required to adapt to a “new normal.” Many school buildings were either closed or operating on split schedules. At Ulla Muller Elementary School on St. Thomas, children ate FEMA packets instead of hot lunches.

And, just twenty minutes away from Muller, the Tutu Hi-Rise community — once home to 200 families — was completely devastated. Personal belongings were scattered, and at least one life was lost.

It’s no surprise that Dr. McCollum mentioned the need for psychological services for students and teachers to recover from the trauma they’d experienced.

Still, ED staff were most struck by the people they met: the residents of the USVI who, despite the hardship they faced, were overwhelmingly positive.

Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, for example, had suffered significant damage, including the total loss of the music department. Students considered the school band a point of pride, and so wrestled with their new identity without music. Yet, they — along with their teachers, some of whom had also lost everything — resiliently forged ahead.

As one ED staffer noted, students were simply trying “to reclaim the structure that school provided and the joy and accomplishment it brought.”

Throughout the Islands, residents looked at the hurricanes as an opportunity to not just get back on their feet, but to also significantly improve the systems and structures that had been in place.

During the trip, representatives from both local and federal governments engaged in open and honest dialogue — in an effort to both communicate needs and set the Islands up for long-term success.

That’s why, when ED staff — which had added Jenay Morrisey (Office of Non-Public Education) and Dr. David Cantrell (Acting Director, Office of School Support and Rural Programs) — returned in February, they were encouraged to see some progress.

Fronds had appeared on palm trees, which were repopulating the landscape. Debris, while still a tremendous challenge, had been collected and piled. The hot lunch program had replaced emergency rations in schools on St. Thomas. Modular facilities and supplemental buildings had begun serve as temporary classrooms, cafeterias, and gymnasiums. Existing relationships had been strengthened, and new relationships had formed between ED and VIDE. Several important administrative positions had been filled.

And — perhaps most encouraging of all — tourism had begun to return to the Islands. Cruise ships were in USVI waters, and several businesses were serving customers again.

Still, students and educators faced grave challenges.

For example, the VIDE still needed to fortify and rebuild infrastructure, and to return many students to full-day sessions. Dr. McCollum voiced concerns about the toll of trauma on students and the availability of mental health service providers on island.

ED staff, in turn, provided ongoing technical assistance and risk management support. They also worked to implement long-term structures that would make for a sustainable rebuilding process.

The second trip also provided an opportunity for ED to assist the VIDE with their consolidated grant application, which allows the Islands to combine their plans for nine grant programs under one application. These nine programs provide millions of dollars to implement education services in the Islands’ schools, as well as professional development, equipment, technology, and more.

And just last month, the Secretary announced new federal assistance for communities in recovery, including Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations.

In addition to financial support, ED has also published guidance and relief information online in both Spanish and English, and continues to communicate with elementary and secondary school system officials and private schools on the USVI.

Strong support, from within and outside the community, has helped the USVI to make progress. When ED staff return to the Islands — their next visit is planned for April 2018– they hope to see a much-needed “return to normalcy” for students on the horizon.

As the shared work continues, ED staff remain confident that the spirit of the USVI and its people — one of hope, promise, and resilience — will be just what’s needed to rebuild and renew.