Sick and desperate after storm, Puerto Rican teacher ends her odyssey in Miami classroom

As Joanyri Hernandez stood at the front of the classroom, a dozen ninth-grade students scrolled through “The Odyssey” on their tablets and listened to all of the detours Odysseus had taken on his way home.

“He was already cursed by the gods, so nothing good was waiting for him,” Hernandez told the class at Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami Lakes. “He’s going to lose all his men, he’s going to end up sailing alone, and then he’s going to arrive home finding insolent men courting his lady and eating his food supply. It’s an odyssey, right?”

Just two months earlier, Hernandez had been on her own nightmarish journey.

The 40-year-old teacher had always thought she would live in Puerto Rico until the day she died. She had a job she loved teaching English at a local high school and a daughter in college on the island.

Then Hurricane Maria hit, transforming her idyllic beach town. Fallen trees and power lines blocked the streets of Isabela and debris from destroyed homes and businesses littered the waterfront. There was no power and no way to reach the outside world.

A few days after the storm, Hernandez got sick from the tap water, which had been contaminated. For days, she was unable to eat. As her supply of bottled water dwindled, Hernandez’s anxiety grew. The hospitals, pharmacies and stores were all closed.

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Joanyri Hernandez, 40, left her home in Puerto Rico to make a new life for herself in Miami following Hurricane Maria’s devastating blow to her beloved homeland. EMILY MICHOT

“Everything was gone,” she said. “Everywhere you would drive, it was just destruction. Everywhere. It was horrible. And I panicked.”

Hernandez drove to a town an hour away in search of cellphone service. Then she called a friend in Miami and asked her to buy a plane ticket. A few days later, Hernandez drove back to the town and called again. Her friend had found a one-way ticket to Miami, but it left the next day.

Hernandez rushed home to pack. Then she spent 12 hours in line at a gas station so she could fill up the tank just enough to make the trip to the airport.

“I was skinny, I was sick, I was depressed,” Hernandez said. “And, well, I had to start over.”

Hernandez is one of dozens of Puerto Rican teachers who have been hired by Florida schools over the past two months, part of a wave of close to 200,000 people who have left the island since the hurricane struck on Sept. 20.

The exodus also includes roughly 7,200 Puerto Rican students now enrolled in Florida schools, many of whom left the island while their local school was still shuttered.

Most of the families have settled in Central Florida, where the Orange County school district has enrolled more than 2,100 Puerto Rican children, and nearby Osceola County has enrolled another 1,600.

Others have moved to South Florida. In Miami-Dade, there are more than 670 students from Puerto Rico in the public school system and another four dozen in the local Catholic schools.

As frustration grows over widespread unemployment and the continued lack of electricity on much of the island, the number of Puerto Rican hurricane refugees is expected to keep climbing.

Abuela to the rescue

For Eunice Gonzalez Caro, it wasn’t the damage from Hurricane Maria — which smashed a tree into the roof, flooded the kitchen and shattered the windows — or even the lack of running water that sent her fleeing from Puerto Rico to Miami.

It was seeing her three granddaughters bored and cooped up inside, with no idea when they would be able to return to school. A week after the storm, Gonzalez Caro began to worry that 6-year-old Anabel, who is autistic, would lose some of the progress she had worked so hard to achieve. Anabel had recently been able to move from a special needs program to a regular classroom after years of occupational therapy.

With Anabel’s future in mind, Gonzalez Caro packed what she could carry, boarded a plane with her three granddaughters and left the island. It was the hardest decision she’d ever had to make.

“I still cry because I had to abandon my people,” she said. “From one moment to the next you have to decide. The children come first.”

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Joanyri Hernandez, 40, a high school English teacher in Puerto Rico, feels very fortunate to have landed a teaching job at Barbara Goleman Senior High in Miami. EMILY MICHOT

On Tuesday afternoon, two months after the hurricane, Gonzalez Caro was sitting at the edge of the playground in Wynwood’s Roberto Clemente Park, watching as her granddaughters climbed the jungle gym in their navy school uniforms and yellow rain boots.

The three girls had enrolled in nearby Eneida M. Hartner Elementary, where Anabel had been able to get the same special needs services she’d received in Puerto Rico. Eight-year-old Isabel was in a program for English-language learners and 4-year-old Yarisbel had quickly picked up new English phrases from her preschool teacher.

Abuela, look at me, pay attention,” she now told Gonzalez Caro when she wanted to complain about something one of her sisters had done.

Although Gonzalez Cano had planned to stay with relatives in Wynwood for only a few months, she was afraid that returning to the island in the middle of the school year would further disrupt her granddaughters’ lives. Their school in Puerto Rico had yet to reopen — one of roughly 50 that had not resumed classes by the beginning of this week. Now, Gonzalez Cano is looking for a job and for a more permanent place to live.

“We’re going to have to see what happens day by day,” she said.

Teachers wanted

For some Florida school districts, the wave of Puerto Rican teachers has come at just the right time. Florida has struggled to retain teachers in recent years as low salaries have pushed some to look for a new career and others to move elsewhere. The problem has been exacerbated by the state’s rapidly growing population.

Miami-Dade has already hired 36 Puerto Rican teachers — about two-thirds as substitutes while they apply to become permanent staff. In the Orlando area, the Orange County school district has 70 new employees from Puerto Rico, including 43 teachers. A handful of new arrivals have also been hired in Osceola County.

In an effort to help Puerto Rican teachers find jobs in Florida, state officials have waived some of the teaching certification requirements, including the requirement that teachers submit official college transcripts.

State and local officials are also trying to ease the transition for other new arrivals. Gov. Rick Scott has opened disaster relief centers at the Orlando and Miami airports, and a number of groups, including the local Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, are collecting donations for Puerto Rican families.

The Florida Department of Education has waived some of the rules for school registration and a number of colleges and universities are offering in-state tuition to those fleeing the storm. State officials are also working with Puerto Rico’s government to help high school students earn a Puerto Rican diploma while they’re enrolled in Florida schools.

Even with the help, living and teaching in Miami has been a big adjustment for Joanyri Hernandez.

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Joanyri Hernandez, 40, and Barbara Goleman Senior High Principal Joaquin Hernandez talk to Joanyri’s ninth-grade students about ‘The Odyssey’ during class on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. EMILY MICHOT

In Puerto Rico, Hernandez’s students wrote everything by hand, copying lessons from the board into their notebooks. At Barbara Goleman High, much of the work is done online and lessons are projected onto an interactive whiteboard. “My first day here was like coming to a high school in a movie,” she said.

Hernandez adapted quickly, said Principal Joaquin Hernandez. In just four days, the new hire graduated from shadowing a colleague to running her own classroom.

“She’s the most bubbly person, happy person, that you have ever seen,” the principal said.

By late November, Joanyri Hernandez was laughing and joking with the students as she helped them make sense of Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

But she missed her students and colleagues in Puerto Rico and she missed her daughter. It was also hard to get used to speaking English all day. And people in Miami seemed to keep to themselves.

In Puerto Rico, Hernandez was used to striking up conversations with strangers at the grocery store. Here, she said, “everybody is minding their own business.”

“That made me miss my island,” she added. “That made me miss the hospitality of Puerto Ricans.”

Despite her longing for home, Hernandez doesn’t plan to go back to Puerto Rico. The island she knew and loved has been destroyed. “Puerto Rico will never be the same after Hurricane Maria. Never,” she said. “And I don’t want to go back to that. If I’m moving forward, then I’ll just move forward.”