Hundreds of Puerto Rican schools closed after Maria. Special needs kids got left behind.
AÑASCO, Puerto Rico (En español)
It was the second day of the new school year in Puerto Rico, but 7-year-old Angel Torres wasn’t in class. He was at a physical therapy session, struggling once again to stand on his own, when the boy’s therapist asked his mom how school was going.
“Bad. Terrible,” Brenda López said, frustration spilling out. “The classroom isn’t suitable for him.”
A year after Hurricane Maria changed almost everything on the island, hundreds of parents like López were left struggling to find classrooms, teachers and therapists for their children with autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. What had been a daunting task before the storm — finding a place where their special needs children could thrive — had become vastly harder afterward, as the government shuttered more than 250 schools and the education department scrambled to relocate students and staff. The Department of Education said in late August that it still needed to fill 132 vacancies for special education teachers. And that meant some kids like Angel, who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk on his own or talk, were left in limbo.
The day before, López had taken Angel to school — only to find a cramped space where the air conditioning barely worked, the bathroom was too small for Angel’s wheelchair to enter, and there was no diaper changing table.
There was also no teacher. The six students had been sent home at 11 a.m. on the first day and couldn’t go back until the school, Carmen Casasús Marti Elementary, found a special education teacher.
What frustrated López the most was that her son had attended a great school the previous year with a large, well-equipped classroom and a devoted teacher — so devoted that she’d driven highways littered with debris to check on her students after the hurricane. Angel had made real progress at Parcelas María Elementary. Looking at the calm little boy stretching with his therapist, it was hard to imagine that three years ago when he’d enrolled at the school, any noise — music, cars driving by, even the sounds of children playing — had been enough to send him into a fit of screaming and crying.
But the government had shut down the elementary school in a wave of closures over the summer triggered by a combination of debt and the exodus of school-age children. Now, López knew she would have to fight to get Angel a new teacher and to make sure he got the help he needed in school. There was no telling how long that would take.
The therapist, Ana Lebrón, placed Angel’s feet firmly on the ground in front of a rock climbing wall at the nonprofit Centro Ayani clinic. She slowly moved his hands sideways from one brightly colored handhold to the next. With trembling legs and the therapist guiding him, Angel took a step to the right.
It had taken years for Angel to take that step, braced against a wall, and his mother was determined he wouldn’t regress. After the hurricane, even with no roof over their heads and the highways impassable, López helped Angel practice standing, mimicking what she had seen his therapist do.
But the hurricane cost them time they didn’t have in the child’s development. And Angel’s family wasn’t the only one.
Lebrón said nearly all of her patients had experienced problems related to the school closures — difficulties finding teachers or therapy, a change in school or classroom, all of it disturbing the delicate balance that many special needs children require to make progress.
“Here,” she said, “all of the parents are desperate.”
‘A complete setback’
Ten miles south, Angel’s classmate Marylee Colón crouched on the gravel next to her dog, Nolo, and gently scratched his head. The normally exuberant 10-year-old girl was quiet today, her eyes downcast under dark bangs.
Three days earlier, Marylee had been jumping side to side and spinning in circles to her favorite Taylor Swift song, “Shake It Off.” Now, she was moping around the yard outside her family’s home. Her older sister had gone to school that morning while Marylee stayed home for the second day in a row. And although Marylee has Down syndrome and is still learning to speak, it was clear that she knew something was wrong.
“She arrived at school and she was excited, but when she saw that I was going to take her home because she didn’t have classes, she got upset and sad,” said Marylee’s mother, Yesenia Santiago.
There had been no special education teacher available for Marylee’s class so her mother brought her home.
“I don’t take my daughter to school so that they babysit her,” she said. “I take her so they give her classes.”
Santiago filed a complaint along with the parents of Marylee’s classmates. The regional education office promised to find a special education teacher, but Santiago was skeptical that the problem would be resolved any time soon. She knew from experience that it could take hours of phone calls and repeated visits to government offices to get her daughter the help she needed. “There are so many things that they’ve promised and it’s always the same,” she said. “I’m frustrated. I’m not surprised.”
At her previous school, Parcelas María Elementary, Marylee had been making progress. She’d learned to go to the bathroom on her own and had started to speak a little more clearly. The teacher, who had spent five years with Marylee, understood the 10-year-old’s garbled speech and knew when she was upset or needed help.
“Now, everything is going to be more difficult because it’s not just two months” of summer break without classes, Santiago said. “It’s several months in which she has to adapt to the teacher, the curriculum the teacher gives her. It’s a complete setback.”
Puerto Rico’s school closures weren’t supposed to disrupt services for special needs kids. They were supposed to help the education department consolidate campuses so that its limited resources weren’t stretched as thin. In the face of more than $70 billion in debt, the island had to cut $300 million from its education budget. And Hurricane Maria had further emptied schools where enrollment had already shrunk after years of migration to escape the island’s economic crisis. After the storm, almost half of Puerto Rico’s 1,110 schools were at less than 60 percent capacity.
“We have a lot of really big buildings and we had a lot of small groups of students in each of those really big buildings,” said Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, speaking at her San Juan office in early August. “By consolidating schools and putting more students in the same location you can make investments, whether it’s investments for materials or technology or human resources, that will allow you to provide a greater benefit at a lower cost to the greatest number of students.”
But for students like Marylee and Angel, any change is hard and can delay development for months, maybe years.
There are more than 100,000 students with special needs in Puerto Rico — more than a third of the total student population.
Getting education and therapy for a child with special needs was already such a challenge that a court had imposed a daily fine of $5,000 on the Department of Education for failing to meet its federally mandated obligations to this vulnerable population. The suit that triggered the fine had been filed nearly 40 years earlier, but the department still hadn’t met its legal requirements. Although special education services had improved over the years, “the department has a lot of challenges,” said José Torres Valentín, one of the lawyers involved in the suit.
The week before school started on Aug. 13, Keleher told the Miami Herald that special education services follow the child wherever he or she attends school.
Once the semester started, however, it became clear that services weren’t following hundreds of children with special needs.
Jinnette Morales, a special education activist and the mother of a 13-year-old girl with Down syndrome, said she was getting roughly 20 calls and messages a day from parents across the island who were facing issues similar to the ones at Marylee’s school.
“The population that has suffered the most with the school closures has been special education students,” Morales said. “What Puerto Rico is living today is an abuse.”
As the complaints poured in, Morales created a Facebook page — “Horror Stories in Special Education” — where she posted the grievances of parents struggling to get services for their children. Two weeks into the semester, the page was filled with the stories of parents whose children hadn’t been able to go to school because they still didn’t have a teacher or a teacher’s aide or an adequate classroom. There were also parents whose children hadn’t been able to get therapy after their neighborhood school closed and parents whose children had learning disabilities and were now stuck in overcrowded classrooms where their needs weren’t being met.
“There have always been problems,” said Morales, “but now the closures have doubled the problems.”
The school district did not respond to questions about the specific issues raised by parents. In an August press release, the Department of Education said it had launched a special recruiting effort to hire more special education teachers and fill other positions for which it has historically been difficult to find qualified candidates.
In early August, Keleher acknowledged that the department’s budget isn’t sufficient to cover the island’s special education needs. Last year, she said, there was an $80 million deficit for special education services. But, Keleher added, “we can’t jump to the conclusion that because I didn’t get the $80 million that there’s some unmet need that’s going to follow that.”
Some families have been able to get help for their special needs children.
In the town of Gurabo, 30 minutes south of San Juan, Eunice González had been dreading the first day of school. Her 7-year-old granddaughter, Anabelle, has autism and needs a teacher’s aide in order to keep up in a regular classroom. Three days before the start of the new school year, González still didn’t know whether the school system was going to provide an aide. Anabelle was excited about starting classes, but González worried that she’d have to tell Anabelle that she had to stay home while her sisters went to school.
Finally, on the Friday before school started, González got confirmation that Anabelle would have an aide. She was relieved. González had fled to Miami with her granddaughters after the hurricane — in large part because she was worried that while schools remained closed after the storm, Anabelle would lose some of the progress she had worked so hard to achieve.
It was a difficult decision to return to Puerto Rico, but González had been reassured when she learned that the school the girls had attended before the storm, Margarita Rivera de Janer Elementary, was going to remain open. Anabelle would get the help she needed to readjust to life in Puerto Rico.
“We’re a blessed family and we’ve been lucky,” González said.
‘Whatever it takes’
Two weeks into the semester, Angel and Marylee still hadn’t been able to return to school. They still didn’t have a teacher and their parents were growing increasingly frustrated.
“The special education students don’t have a teacher to be able to start their class, to be able to start a normal day at school,” López said. “They took away the good teacher they always had before.”
López and Santiago had already overcome tremendous obstacles to help their children make progress. López is a single mom with three kids who hasn’t been able to get a job because she’s frequently taking Angel to physical therapy and to doctor’s appointments. She also can’t afford a car so she depends on friends and family for rides.
López lives in a cramped, unpainted cinder-block house in a rural area outside the town of Añasco. Bats have somehow managed to get inside the walls and the sound of their skittering terrifies Angel at night. López can’t afford to buy Angel a new wheelchair, so he’s stuck with one he’s already outgrown. She also can’t afford to buy a bathing chair for the shower. When it’s time to give Angel a bath, López holds him with one arm and washes him with the other.
The hurricane only made her job tougher. But López was determined to stop Angel from sliding backward.
The wind destroyed the second story of her father’s home, where López and her children took shelter, and López spent weeks sleeping on a recliner under the stars with Angel on her lap. She tried to mimic what she’d seen the physical therapist do, massaging Angel’s legs and carefully helping him to stand. As soon as the clinic reopened, in late October, López borrowed a car to take Angel to therapy. She had to weave around fallen power lines and tree branches strewn across the highway.
“It was frightening, but I said, ‘It’s for my child.’ You do whatever it takes, right?” López recalled. “Therapy is something Angel needs to strengthen his legs, his back, and my hope that one day I’ll see him walk depends on that.”
Meanwhile, Marylee and her family were living their own version of the post-hurricane nightmare. Their house was in a flood-prone area near the Añasco River, so they’d stayed with a relative in another town during the storm.
When they returned home, the inside of their house was coated in a thick layer of mud. The river, which had risen six feet during the storm, had washed the family’s belongings onto a nearby road. Almost all of the furniture was ruined.
The family had a generator, but it had been damaged in the flood and worked only intermittently. Although Santiago’s husband, Roberto Colón, a mechanic, did his best to fix it, the generator often failed at night, plunging the house into darkness and filling Marylee with terror. She would start screaming and try to run out of the house, convinced that the darkness was only inside. Santiago would grab Marylee and hug her tightly. She could feel the little girl’s heart beating furiously. “Mamá is here, Mamá is here,” she’d say over and over again.
When Marylee’s school, which had suffered little damage, reopened at the end of October, it was a relief for the family. “The children no longer had to stay at home living all of the disasters, at least they had part of their day that was a little calmer, a little more relaxed and they could forget,” Santiago said.
But at night, Marylee was still terrified. Desperate, the family borrowed $4,500 from a friend to buy solar panels. After the electricity finally returned to the neighborhood in January, the family got a $1,464 electricity bill for the months they’d spent in the dark. They plan to fight it.
In what seemed to Marylee’s parents like another arbitrary government action, Marylee’s school appeared on the list of campuses slated for closure that was released in the spring. The family didn’t understand why. The school was in good condition and enrollment had dropped only slightly after the storm. There were still 250 students.
Santiago never got a letter from the Department of Education about the closure or how it would impact the services Marylee received at school. She learned about the closure from another parent.
“I think when they closed the schools what they did was generalize,” Santiago said. “They didn’t think about special education students. They just thought about closing a school and moving students to another.”
And that meant it was left to the parents to make sure their children got the help they needed. After filing formal complaints with the school district, the parents at Marylee’s school were finally able to get a special education teacher and teacher’s aides. By the time the classroom was fully staffed and all of the students were able to return for a normal day of classes, four weeks had passed.
López had known early on that it would be a struggle. After taking Angel home from therapy on the second day of school, she was already thinking about the long road ahead. Angel, she said, was the best thing that had ever happened to her. “He’s a child who, the only thing he does is spread love,” López said. “He’s my life. And if I have to keep fighting for him, for whatever it is, I’ll do whatever it takes so that he has his things and so that he can keep moving forward.”