When Hurricane Irma sideswiped Puerto Rico in early September, the storm knocked out power to about 600 schools and left 400 with no running water. As Hurricane Maria approached the island this week, 20 schools had yet to reopen.
Now, with power knocked out for the entire island, roads impassable and widespread flooding, it could be weeks — or even months — before some of Puerto Rico’s 350,000 students are able to return to their local school.
The Miami-Dade school district is preparing for an influx of displaced students — either kids sent to live with relatives or entire families fleeing the island, at least temporarily.
“Everybody is related to somebody on the island and they may not want their kids out of school for long periods of time,” said Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “I think it is very, very likely that we will see a surge in the hundreds to perhaps a few thousand” Puerto Rican students coming to South Florida and the Orlando area, he added.
Mari Corugedo, director of Florida’s League of United Latin American Citizens, agreed that schools in South Florida, Orlando and Tampa should prepare for a wave of Puerto Rican students, who as U.S. citizens can move to the mainland without a visa. She said decisions about whether to send children alone or relocate the whole family will likely depend on the parents’ job prospects.
“Definitely if they have grandparents, aunts and uncles, you might see students coming while the parents figure out their economic situation,” said Corugedo, who has family on the island.
Puerto Rico has yet to fully assess the damage schools suffered from Maria, which made landfall on the island early Wednesday morning. Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said she does not yet have a time frame for reopening schools. Some schools left without power after Irma were able to reopen on an abbreviated schedule, but Keleher said she expects a lack of running water to be a major obstacle to resuming classes after Maria.
Even so, Keleher said she’s optimistic that families will keep their children in the Puerto Rican education system, which her office is in the process of overhauling. She said the government may decide to change the school calendar to make up for lost time or relocate some kids to nearby schools that are able to reopen more quickly.
“My commitment is to do everything possible to reduce the amount of lost instructional time,” Keleher told the Miami Herald.
But if history is any indication, many likely will leave Puerto Rico for South Florida. Every crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean sends shock waves — and new students — to South Florida, and Hurricane Maria will likely be no exception.
In recent years, Venezuelan families have flocked to Miami-Dade as the beleaguered South American nation plunges into a deepening political and economic crisis. Ronald Reagan Senior High in Doral is now about 90 percent Venezuelan, and two other area schools each welcomed at least a hundred new foreign students, most from Venezuela, at the beginning of the school year.
In 2014, when unaccompanied child migrants from Central America streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border, Miami-Dade schools enrolled hundreds of new students from Guatemala and Honduras. County schools have also welcomed waves of Haitian and Cuban students over the years.
For Puerto Rico, the exodus began long before the hurricane with the island’s economic woes pushing thousands to move to the mainland. Although New York, Chicago and Philadelphia have been the traditional destinations for Puerto Ricans, islanders are increasingly settling in Florida. More than 100,000 Puerto Ricans live in Miami-Dade and more than one million have settled in Florida, mainly in the Orlando and Tampa areas.
Those who do choose to stay in Puerto Rico after the hurricane will need extra support, Corugedo said. “There’s a huge need out there and we can’t just look the other way because it could have been us,” she said.