SALINAS, Puerto Rico — There was little her family could salvage. Just a few plastic chairs, some photos, her school uniform.
The flooding last fall that devastated the home of Deishangelxa Nuez Galarza, a fifth grader in this coastal area of southern Puerto Rico, also closed her elementary school, El Coquí, for three days while staff cleaned out a foot of muddy water from every first floor room. Deishangelxa missed two weeks of classes, which upset her.
“School is very important to me because I want to keep studying,” she said. “I want to become a nurse.”
It was just the latest interruption in schooling that’s been characterized by near constant disruption. Deishangelxa started kindergarten at Ana Hernandez Usera elementary school in 2017, the year Hurricane Maria struck the island. Schools across Puerto Rico were closed for an average of four months.
Ana Hernandez Usera never reopened. Like more than 260 other schools across Puerto Rico with low enrollment, it was closed permanently as part of wider cost cutting measures. Deishangelxa transferred to El Coquí, but the island would not get a break from natural disasters. She was 8 in January 2020, when earthquakes rocked the island, closing her school for three months while engineers inspected its physical structures to make sure they were safe for students to return.
When classes finally resumed, it wasn’t for long. A few weeks later schools closed again because of Covid-19. Deishangelxa, 9 years old at the time, struggled with virtual learning and fell far behind. In August 2021, after successive waves of infection saw schools open and close, in-person schooling finally resumed for students on the island, but not for long. Just a year later, Hurricane Fiona unleashed a furious attack on the island, causing widespread flooding and infrastructure damage. Deishangelxa was 10 when schools shut again in September 2022 — this time for two weeks.
The troubles Deishangelxa has faced are mirrored across Puerto Rico. Since 2017, natural disasters have pounded the island — decimating homes, crippling the power grid and gutting infrastructure. That repeated trauma, what one resident called “collective island PTSD,” has been compounded by widespread poverty and bureaucratic challenges.
Puerto Rico’s school system is both uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters that are becoming more common across the U.S. because of climate change, and unusually ill-equipped to help children recover from the learning setbacks that come with them. The island has faced corruption and mismanagement in local government, billions of dollars in debt and mass emigration that has caused a critical loss of professionals and essentially halved the island’s student population in 15 years, from almost 550,000 in 2006 to 276,413 in 2021.
The Puerto Rican school district, the sixth largest in the U.S., is often ignored in conversations about U.S. education. Yet experts say it is the canary in the coal mine that other districts could learn from as they grapple with the effects of climate change on learning, health and infrastructure.
“How do we make up for the impact of those disruptions of school and how do we make schools more resilient?” said John King, a former U.S. secretary of education who is co-chair of This is Planet Ed, an initiative of the Aspen Institute that works on climate solutions through the education sector. “That’s an acute problem in Puerto Rico today, but it’s a problem we’re already seeing in other parts of the country that’s going to grow.”
Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education under President Biden, promised “a new day” for Puerto Rico. Over the past two years, he has signed off on almost $6 billion in federal dollars for the island’s school system. Almost a billion of that funding was made possible by reversing a Trump administration decision to restrict pandemic aid to the island because of what had been called “longstanding challenges” with the island’s mismanagement of federal funds. The Puerto Rican governor, Pedro Pierluisi, promised to implement “greater accountability” and enlist an independent third party to administer the funds.
“We’ve never seen such a need in the history of Puerto Rico. We are making a clarion call for help.”Victor Manuel Bonilla Sánchez, president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico
The money has so far been used to pay for temporary teacher salary increases, hire hundreds of school mental health professionals and fund tutoring programs. But, despite a 2018 education reform law that allows for more local control, the Puerto Rico department of education is still heavily centralized, making it difficult to get the money out the door quickly.
Chris Soto, a senior advisor to Cardona who heads the federal effort to improve Puerto Rican schools, said it’s important to tackle not only the system’s short-term needs, but also some of its systemic issues, such as the stifling bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure that have plagued the department for decades.
“That way we’re not having the same conversation in 20 years,” he said.
Puerto Rico, which has been under U.S. control since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, has long occupied a nebulous position as an “unincorporated territory.” Its residents are U.S. citizens but lack a presidential vote and representation in Congress. Federal policies still disadvantage the island, the result of a “quasi-colonial relationship,” said King.
The federal share of Medicaid funding, for example, is capped at 55 percent (if Puerto Rico were a state, it could receive 83 percent), residents are denied certain disability benefits and there are restrictions on access to other funding, such as the child tax credit. Child poverty is widespread: In the 50 U.S. states, 17 percent of children live below the poverty line; in Puerto Rico, that figure is 55 percent and even higher in rural areas.
Puerto Rico’s student population has dropped by almost half in 15 years, from almost 550,000 in 2006 to 276,413 in 2021, a decline caused by disasters, mismanagement and migration.
Academic outcomes in Puerto Rico are poor and have been on a steady decline since Hurricane Maria. On the math test that children all over the U.S. take (the National Assessment for Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card), about a third of fourth graders and a quarter of eighth graders on the mainland were considered “proficient” in 2022. By comparison, so few students made the cut in Puerto Rico in either grade that year that the percentages rounded to zero.
Between 2017 and 2022, the percentage of children considered on grade level in Spanish, math, English and science decreased by at least 10 percentage points in each subject, as measured by the local assessment, META-PR. In 2021, school officials announced that 13,000 students had failed all their classes.
Online learning was particularly challenging for Puerto Rican students. Even in 2017, before Hurricane Maria, about a quarter of the island’s children lacked internet access and half lacked computers at home. Those who do have them now often struggle with intermittent power.
Students struggled to get back on track after in-person learning resumed: More than half of all students were “disengaged” between February and May last year, according to an estimate in a 2021 U.S. Department of Education report. At El Coquí, Deishangelxa’s school, principal Jorge Luis Colón Gonzalez said a third of his students are now struggling, despite some extra help.
Federal funds paid for a private company to run an afterschool academic recovery program at El Coquí this school year. More than 75 children, including Deishangelxa, stay behind after school every day for two hours of extra tutoring in Spanish, English, math and science. Colón said he hopes this additional support can help his students catch up. “I’m very worried about their learning,” he said.
Yiria Muñiz, a teacher at a Catholic girls’ school, Academia María Reina, in San Juan, said Puerto Rico’s students have experienced a full five years of disrupted learning, and it shows. Muñiz said she used to teach her students the metric system in a week; now, it takes more than two months.
“2017 and 2022 children are not the same. If you think about my seventh graders right now, they’ve been going through something ever since second grade. So, they have missed on many, many opportunities to develop social, academic, behavioral, emotional skills,” she said.
Muñiz is constantly having to change her curriculum to accommodate her students. “Everything I’ve done before is no good anymore,” she said.
Teachers across Puerto Rico say they have received little assistance in meeting their students’ changing needs. Professional development is often spotty, optional or hastily put together, and many teachers have not received any such support for years, said Victor Manuel Bonilla Sánchez, the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, a union that represents teachers.
Some nonprofits have stepped in to fill the gap. For example, a coalition of organizations focused on literacy, headed by the nonprofit Flamboyan Foundation, holds workshops to train teachers in how to teach reading, stocks school libraries with culturally appropriate books and educates the broader community on the importance of reading. Yadira Sánchez, a school psychologist who also heads a nonprofit Lectores para el Futuro (Readers for the Future), said teachers are “hungry” for this support; a recent training session she helped organize was packed. Now, the coalition is working to expand its outreach to more teachers thanks to an expected infusion of new federal funds.
Even more worrying than the academic disruptions, perhaps, is the mental health crisis among the island’s children. In one recent assessment, the Puerto Rican Department of Education’s Social Worker Program found that more than 500 children had lost a family member during the 2020-21 academic year and approximately 68,000 kids, almost a third of all students, were identified as needing help because of an emotional, mental or behavioral situation.
Compounded trauma from the barrage of disasters lingers. Teachers speak of children crying when a passing truck makes the ground vibrate, because it reminds them of an earthquake. Some kids become distracted in class at the slightest sound of rain drops, while others hide food in their pockets and socks.
Puerto Rico’s plan included using the $6 billion recovery money provided by the federal education department to beef up existing school mental health teams, in part by hiring more than 420 school nurses and 110 school psychologists to address severe staff shortages among school health personnel. The money will also help pay for hundreds of overdue invoices for evaluations and therapy already conducted for children in special education programs.
Dinelys Rodriguez, 14, studies at Delia Dávila de Cabán School in Toa Baja, about 25 minutes from San Juan. She remembers waiting in line with her mother for more than three hours just to enter a supermarket after Hurricane Maria. Now, every time there’s a storm, she worries she won’t have enough to eat. That time was challenging, but she and her brother, Jadniel, 11, also remember playing cards with family in the aftermath of the hurricanes and taking showers in the rain, memories that make them smile.
But as they’ve grown, they’ve started to worry about missing so much school. Dinelys wants to be a lawyer. “I want to be someone in life,” she said. “How will I pass my school exams and graduate if I can’t go to school?” Jadniel worries as well. “It is difficult to study when all the adults around me are always worried,” he said. “I am always on alert.”
Both children participate in a longstanding mental health program in their school, run by the nonprofit Instituto Nueva Escuela. Luz Rivera Ocasio, a social worker with the program, said she supports families whether they need counseling or practical help such as money for food or clothes. But the program, Casa Familiar, is only in 13 schools, reaching just a tiny fraction of those who need help.
Rivera described her role as “the cloth that absorbs all the tears.” Children come in and out of her room to give — and get — a warm, enveloping hug. Everyone is “holding, carrying or covering up” their emotions, she said. “And it’s accumulating.”
El Coquí employs a school social worker; two years ago, it added a school psychologist. Colón, the principal, said students and teachers are still recovering emotionally from the isolation of virtual learning. “Anxiety is the biggest issue,” Colón said. Not only does he encourage teachers to speak to the school psychologist, he sometimes confides in her as well.
Sánchez, the school psychologist who leads Lectores para el Futuro, said people on the island pride themselves on being resilient, but the unrelenting natural disasters have made that attitude impossible to sustain. She counsels teachers who blame themselves for not being with dying family members, who feel terrible for having yelled at students in frustration, and even those who have left the profession.
“Before we had time to recover, now we haven’t had time to recover. So, you think you’re getting out of it and something else happens,” she said. “It’s a crisis.”
While public schools on the island had seen a steady decline in enrollment for almost two decades, the academic year immediately after Hurricane Maria saw a precipitous drop of more than 42,000 children. School officials had already closed 167 schools the year before and decided to further consolidate by closing more than 260 additional neighborhood schools. Teachers were reassigned, children had longer commutes and school buildings were left vacant. Since then, enrollment has continued to decline, falling by another 16,878 since 2021.
Ana Díaz, who teaches third graders at Delia Dávila de Cabán School in Toa Baja, has experienced the plummeting enrollment first hand. Five years ago, before Hurricane Maria, she had 28 students in her class. This school year she started off with just 14.
Díaz said many students have gone to the mainland, usually to Florida to stay with relatives. But that’s not an easy path — not only must they get accustomed to a new place, new friends and new language, but the curriculum isn’t aligned with that in Puerto Rico, and kids often struggle academically, she said. Sometimes they return to the island, and it’s often hard for them to readjust and catch up with what they’ve missed.
“The poor outcomes are super frustrating,” said Díaz. “Because I see the potential in a lot of them.” This migration has implications for Díaz’s job as well. If more students leave, she could be transferred to a different school.
Educators have also been affected by austerity measures. An oversight board established by the federal government to restructure Puerto Rico’s massive debt announced in January 2022 that educators would no longer receive a guaranteed pension, their benefits would be cut and they would no longer be eligible for retirement benefits before age 63. This was a blow to teachers on the island who are already poorly paid: The average pay in 2018 was $27,000; teachers in U.S. states averaged $61,730.
The inadequacy of teacher pay was harshly illustrated in early 2022, when a teacher died in a car crash after he fell asleep while driving home from night work as a security guard, one of two moonlighting jobs he needed to make ends meet. In response to the tragedy and other events, educators staged massive walk outs, prompting the government to approve a temporary $1,000-a-month bump for all educators, and bonuses for some teachers, paid for with federal relief funds.
But it isn’t clear what will happen once the money runs out. “I may never be able to retire at this rate,” Díaz said.
Bonilla, of the teachers’ union, said the group’s top priority this year is better mental health support for teachers. Puerto Rico’s education department recently signed an agreement with a local university to provide virtual therapy for educators, but Bonilla said it needs to do much more. “We’ve never seen such a need in the history of Puerto Rico,” he said. “We are making a clarion call for help.”
Puerto Rico’s secretary of education, Eliezer Ramos Parés, who is beginning his second year on the job, acknowledges the tough road ahead. But he is optimistic that the federal money will help and that the U.S. government, nonprofits and the local education department will find ways to work together. Ramos Parés said his department has already made some changes — for example, using more electronic records, rather than paper; collecting more data and documenting its actions.
“Trust is important and for trust, there needs to be transparency,” he said. “Puerto Rico can’t do it alone; we need to be a team.”
Outside El Coquí — the school was named after a tiny species of frog with an outsized voice that is beloved on the island — thousands of yellow and white butterflies flutter around like confetti. But despite the beauty around them, the area’s residents exude a palpable sense of anxiety, fearing the next natural disaster. Locals are always on the alert for warning signs: Here in southern Puerto Rico, if certain ocean birds are suddenly found inland, people believe another disaster is coming, Colón said.
Anxiety could be a factor in a recent increase in the cases of asthma among the students at El Coquí, the school’s social worker said. The number of students at El Coquí with skin conditions has also risen. The maladies could result from the children’s exposure to mold in their homes after the floods, or from environmental contamination that has been a concern in this area for years, she added.
Some of the federal funds will be used to remove mold, asbestos and lead in buildings and provide students with desks that are free of mold or rust. There are also plans to buy or replace outdated air-conditioning systems.
The per capita income in this coastal region of Salinas is less than $10,000 a year; just over a third of working-age residents are in the workforce. Colon, who grew up poor in a nearby town, said education was his way out. It’s a path he fervently wants for his students.
“It’s the only tool they have to rise above poverty,” he said. “It can change their lives.” Because of that, even with the challenges of the past few years, Colon said his resolve to keep working in education is stronger than ever.
“When something isn’t working, we change strategies,” he said. “But we will never give up.”
This story on schools in Puerto Rico was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.