“The Spirit is There”

Looking beyond disaster relief and recovery in Puerto Rico’s hurricane-damaged schools, toward building a better, stronger future for students.

“When can I go back to school?”

When that experience is disrupted, getting back to school can mean everything to students. And the adults who care for them — parents, educators and civic leaders — feel a special urgency.

For our fellow Americans in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, including more than 410,000 students in grades K-12, the 2017 hurricane season severely disrupted those reliable routines. First Irma hit, leaving more than one million people — nearly a third of the population on an island the size of Connecticut — without power. Two weeks later, María followed: one meteorologist likened its impact to a tornado, 50 miles wide, cutting a path of devastation through cities, towns and countryside.

In a three-week period, I travelled twice to visit Puerto Rico — the second time with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

We wanted to see conditions on the ground in the aftermath of the worst storm to hit the island in nearly a century, and provide support to the Puerto Rico Department of Education in its efforts to rebuild.

Since Irma and María slammed the region, our Department team has been in near-daily contact with local officials, coordinating closely with other federal and relief agencies. We’ve provided technical assistance and waived burdensome regulations that would increase costs and slow down recovery. We’ve provided an initial grant and are working with the White House and Congress to provide much greater emergency funding.

We’ve sent staff — thus far, dispatching ten Department employees on temporary assignment to support revitalization efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Still, we knew we needed to learn firsthand how the Federal government, with a host of national, State, local and charitable organizations, can best help the people of Puerto Rico get back to school, get back to normal and emerge stronger than before the storms.

It was immediately clear that parents, teachers and students were eager for all schools to reopen.

On October 24th I arrived in San Juan for my first, two-day visit. As soon as I landed, Puerto Rico’s energetic and dedicated Secretary of Education, Dr. Julia Keleher, sent me a text and asked me to meet her at Villa Capri, an elementary school. Dr. Keleher was visiting to see how the campus was functioning now that students of both Villa Capri and a nearby school that had not yet been re-opened had just started attending classes in the Villa Capri building.

It was immediately clear that parents, teachers and students were eager for all schools to reopen. At the time, only a fraction of Puerto Rico’s campuses had re-opened; since then, a lot more progress has been made, and with extensive damage to the power grid, cell towers, roads and other infrastructure — with student safety paramount — there is still a ton of work to do.

Earlier in 2017, the Puerto Rico Department of Education — which employs all public school staff and operates as one large, dispersed, island-wide school district — announced that it needed to right-size its facility footprint and cut costs by closing more than 175 schools. The storms only compounded that challenge as well as the enormous fiscal challenges that Puerto Rico was facing before the storms.

Even campuses in use in Puerto Rico had damage, downed wires, and limited access to electricity and water

Wherever we traveled, the landscape was dotted with blue FEMA-issued tarps covering roofless buildings. Each blue square signaled homes, workplaces and lives upended.

Both visits showed the scale of the massive recovery efforts. During my first visit, the central base of operations was the massive San Juan Convention Center, with FEMA, the National Guard and representatives of various federal agencies and aid organizations working from there to meet the need.

Communications, logistics and food and water distribution were among the biggest hurdles. Beyond these basic needs, schools continue to face particular issues. Even stabilizing, sanitizing and clearing a hurricane-affected site requires cooperation among local officials, FEMA and other experts.

Secretary Keleher has shown great initiative, seeking help from fellow State and district officials nationwide, and colleagues with experience in disaster management have been quick to respond. During my first visit, a team of eight from the New York City Department of Education was hard at work on site, and during my visit with Secretary DeVos, representatives from the Council of the Great City Schools were on hand helping the Puerto Rico Department of Education, and since then representatives of the Council of Chief State School Officers have traveled to Puerto Rico to help out. From the mainland, Florida education leaders have been and remain in close touch with Secretary Keleher and her staff.

When Secretary DeVos and I returned on November 8th, we received another warm welcome. Governor Ricardo Rosselló, Dr. Keleher and other officials accompanied us on the visit. And we had excellent news to share: Puerto Rico would receive a Project SERV grant of up to $2 million.

We felt the storms’ impact at Instituto Loaiza Cordero in San Juan — once-brightly decorated classrooms and outdoor spaces were dank and water-stained. Across the island, repairs that could be completed fairly easily stateside — with supplies trucked in by highway and assembled onsite — are delayed by sea or air transport, rough terrain, washed-out roads and bridges and other complications.

Some families aren’t waiting. In recent years, some island residents have left for the mainland in search of new opportunities. In the wake of Irma and María, more have joined them, with an estimated 14,000 students relocating in states like Florida and New York.

This, too, brings challenges, including sharing records with these students’ new districts, and our staff is working with partners to help coordinate this important transfer of information. We’re also working with higher education officials to ensure that Puerto Rico’s college students and high school seniors, whether they attend a campus on the island or on the mainland, can apply for and receive financial aid without difficulty or delay.

While celebrating the momentum and strides forward, Secretary Keleher acknowledged the long road ahead. She and her team are doing their best to meet the immediate needs of students and school staff while also establishing the foundation for a bolder vision for Puerto Rico’s schools.

But she was also resolute, adding: “The spirit is there.”

It is this courageous, can-do spirit I’ll remember most from visiting Puerto Rico, and I know it will continue to fuel our partnership with its hard-working leaders and community members.

Ultimately, our shared mission isn’t just getting students back to school, but to a great education — a rich, well-rounded education, where strong, student-centered teaching and learning in subjects like science, technology, engineering, math and history blend with sports, art and music — a revitalized view of education, where schools celebrate the island’s vibrant culture and heritage, children develop as bilingual or multilingual learners and all students gain the skills they’ll need to master the future.

With that vision and in that spirit, we’ll continue supporting Puerto Rico’s efforts to restore and rebuild.


Jason Botel is Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education