If it weren’t for the tangled clump of power lines on a nearby corner and the partially unhinged stop sign down the street, Tuesday might have seemed like the first day of a normal school year at Julio Sellés Solá School in San Juan’s Río Piedras neighborhood.
Hundreds of students streamed into the brightly painted elementary school, giddy with nervous excitement, as their parents followed closely behind. They stopped in the school’s interior patio to greet friends and hug teachers before lining up outside the classrooms.
Then, at promptly 8 a.m., maintenance worker Iris García stood in the middle of the patio, stretched her arm into the air and rang a hand-held bell. With no electricity and no generator, it was the only way to mark the start of classes.
For an estimated 40,000 Puerto Rican students, Tuesday was the first day back at school since Hurricane Maria struck the island over a month ago. The San Juan and Mayagüez regions opened 119 schools in what officials hope will be the first of several waves as they work to get Puerto Rico’s school system up and running.
“We could have closed the school system until everything was perfect. In the best case scenario, we would have been opening in February,” said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who visited Julio Sellés Solá on Tuesday morning. “The alternative is that we opened the schools little by little, understanding that there would be challenges.”
Challenges is putting it mildly. Of Puerto Rico’s roughly 1,100 schools, Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said she estimates that between 15 and 20 percent will have to be permanently shuttered. Many more could be without running water and power for months.
Just 30 minutes outside capital city San Juan, in the town of Toa Baja, Luis M. Santiago K-8 Center looked like a ghost town. A nearby river had swollen during the hurricane, flooding the classrooms with four feet of water. Now, a thick layer of mud covered everything: the floor, the desks, the books that littered the ground where shelves had toppled over. In one classroom, the roof had collapsed and a whiteboard was propped up against the pile of debris, a lesson from Sept. 15 still scrawled across it in black marker. Outside, between the constellation of squat yellow buildings, rats could be heard skittering under piles of trash and leaves.
A few blocks down the street, residents Lourdes Ayala and Carmen Santiago were walking past a shuttered gas station with their grandchildren.
“The children have been without classes for a month and we know there’s a major problem with the schools in our town,” said Lourdes Ayala, who worked as the manager at a local school uniform store before the storm, but is now unemployed. “As responsible grandmothers we’re waiting for the government to give us alternatives so we know where to send our grandchildren to study because it’s a right they have and we don’t want them to miss the whole year.”
But the process of inspecting and repairing all of the island’s schools is shaping up to be a long one. Speaking outside Julio Sellés Solá School in San Juan, Keleher said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is inspecting schools in the Ponce and Bayamón regions this week and plans to open some area schools Oct. 31. She hopes to open additional schools in the three remaining regions in early November.
Finding enough engineers to inspect all of the schools has been a challenge, however. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is operating with a small staff and although Keleher has requested additional help, getting more engineers requires a lengthy approval process.
One of the local teachers unions, the 40,000-member Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, has also formed a commission to inspect the schools, but they don’t always agree with the Army Corps of Engineers about which buildings are safe to reopen.
“It’s been a little slow but the teachers are working to clean the schools because they don’t want to lose them,” said union president Aida Díaz. “What I’ve seen is a desire on the part of the teachers and the students to return to classes.”
Faced with the daily struggle of finding basic necessities, including clean water, some teachers and students have already left the island, however. It’s impossible to know how many, since the computerized attendance systems aren’t working. Another hundred teachers have taken a leave of absence until the end of the semester while they get their own lives in order.
For those who have decided to stay, the focus now is on making up for lost time.
“We’re starting from zero basically,” said Karen Aviles, a first-grade teacher at Julio Sellés Solá. She was eager to get her students caught up, but said she expected they’d need some time to process the worst storm to hit the island in nearly a century. “They’re going to arrive and tell us their experiences and what they saw. We’re here to help them and to listen,” she said.
On Tuesday morning, that meant taking a break from classes to plant a new sapling in the school’s interior patio at the site where a giant tree was ripped out of the ground by the hurricane.
And in Toa Baja, Lourdes Ayala and Carmen Santiago said they’re trying to provide their grandchildren with a different kind of education. They have taken the children with them as they distribute diapers and food to needy residents.
“We want to teach them that even though we’ve been affected, there are people with greater needs,” said Santiago.