Puerto Rico will close 283 schools as island continues to struggle

The Virgin Islands are also lagging in recovery efforts.

Joan Rodriguez teaches English class to her 6th grade students at the Sotero Figueroa Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 6, 2017.
(CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Joan Rodriguez teaches English class to her 6th grade students at the Sotero Figueroa Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 6, 2017. (CREDIT: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

Puerto Rico will close 283 schools across the island following a sharp enrollment drop as the U.S. territory continues to languish in recovery efforts almost seven months after a devastating hurricane.

Education Secretary Julia Keleher announced Thursday that a portion of the island’s more than 1,100 schools won’t re-open next fall, citing the loss of 38,762 students.

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“Half of the existing schools are at 60% of their capacity,” a statement from the island’s Department of Education read.

Bowing to what Keleher called the “fiscal reality” of the island’s situation, the education secretary indicated Puerto Rico will work to shift funding towards repairing those schools remaining open.

“We know it’s a difficult and painful process. For this reason, we’ve done it in the most sensible way taking in consideration all the elements that could impact the daily lives of some families and the school communities in general,” she said.

A number of educators slammed the decision and criticized the government.

“The damage that the Secretary of Education is doing to children, youth and their parents is immeasurable,” said Aida Diaz, who serves as president of a union representing around 30,000 teachers.

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Following the closures, 828 public schools will continue to operate on the island, serving some 319,000 students. The move is intended to save the island upwards of $150 million.

Puerto Rico has struggled to recover since Hurricane Maria struck last September, leaving residents on the already cash-strapped island without steady access to electricity, water, hospitals, and other basic necessities. A slow response from the White House left the island to languish for months, prompting thousands of Puerto Ricans to head to the mainland.

For schools, that exodus has posed a growing crisis. College students have struggled to choose between their education and staying at home to help rebuild the island. Younger Puerto Ricans have also faced a stark choice. Many of the island’s schools are still experiencing power outages and interruptions in their schedules. In January, the Washington Post reported that many teachers were resorting to printing assignments at spots like Burger King, where power is functioning more consistently.

President Trump has come under fire for his response to Hurricane Maria, but the administration appears largely to have moved on from the crisis. The same can’t be said for Puerto Ricans, a number of whom rallied last month at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is tasked with overseeing recovery efforts.

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“I don’t understand how the government thinks that Puerto Rico needs no more help, that everything is ready, that people can do it on their own now,” Maria Beri, member of New York Communities for Change (NYCC), told ThinkProgress at the time. “Half of the island doesn’t even have electricity.”

Puerto Rico isn’t alone. The U.S. Virgin Islands, also badly hit during last year’s hurricane season, are struggling as well. Stalled efforts to repair schools have kept many children out of class or forced to study in substandard conditions. Upwards of 4,500 residents have left the island of St. John as schools and jobs remain in flux. The islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix also temporarily shed around 10 percent of their population.

A recent investigation by Politico revealed that the Trump administration favored Texas, which is still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Harvey, over Puerto Rico, despite the island’s dire circumstances.