An unnatural disaster hits Puerto Rico's schools

Socialist Worker contributors Monique Dols and Lance Selfa traveled to Puerto Rico in late October to bring support and solidarity after the devastation of Hurricane Maria and to document the ongoing crisis on the island. Here, after accompanying members of the teachers' union to three different schools, they report on an education system that remains mostly closed, the threat of privatization and the angry response of teachers and activists.

A ruined school in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (Monique Dols | SW)A ruined school in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (Monique Dols | SW)

MORE THAN one month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a battle over the future of the island's schools has emerged. As this article was being written, only 119 out of a total of 1,113 schools had opened.

The Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR)--a teachers' union which has organized against school closures and attacks on public education for many years--charges Education Secretary Julia Keleher with unnecessarily delaying the opening of hundreds of schools in order push for privatization. The FMPR has called for Keleher's resignation.

By October 24, school was back in session for a small portion of children in particular areas in and around the two major cities of San Juan and Mayaqüez. But in other educational districts, Keleher has postponed the opening of schools indefinitely.

There's no doubt that in a number of localities, classes must be postponed while schools are rehabilitated, and electricity and water are restored.

When we arrived at the Escuela de la Comunidad Marcelino Canino Canino in Dorado, about 20 miles west of San Juan, we joined a "brigade" of more than a dozen teachers, parents, students and local supporters of the FMPR and the Partido Independentista de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rican Independence Party or PIP). The brigade had been at work for hours trying to clean up the school.

During Hurricane Maria, the school, which sits in a flood plain between two rivers, endured heavy flooding. In many classrooms, muddy water almost reached the ceiling. On classroom walls, we could see the marks left behind after the floodwaters receded.

The brigade filled dozens of shopping carts with waterlogged and moldy school supplies and books--in some cases, having to scrape them off the concrete floors--before dumping them in a huge, open-air pile outside the school. Hundreds of rusted desks and filing cabinets lined the entrances to the school.

This was just another example of ordinary working people organizing themselves to fill the vacuum after the government abandoned them. Yet again, the work of people like those on the brigade at Escuela Canino gave the lie to Donald Trump's insulting tweet saying that Puerto Ricans "want everything to done for them."

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THE BATTLE to open schools is also a battle for the future of public education on the island.

Teachers in the brigade at Escuela Canino noted that the school had been placed on a list for closing before the hurricane, and they were sure that the island's education department would follow through on its plan if they didn't try to make the school habitable again.

Many schools are already habitable. For weeks, they served as community centers, offering food and other services to those displaced in the hurricane. But the education department has refused to open many of them, while shutting down the school-based community centers.

The Education Department cites the need for schools to pass a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evaluation. Teachers and families who have been rebuilding their schools for weeks claim that the Army Corps inspections are superficial and can be done much more effectively by regular school staff or Puerto Rican engineers.

At Padre Rufo School, a school specializing in bilingual instruction, located in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce, teachers and parents rallied on October 27 to call on the Department of Education to open the school.

Teachers had operated the school as a community center for three weeks after the hurricane, providing meals and art projects to hundreds of students and community members free of charge.

"Informally, we heard that the Army Corps gave the school 'thumbs up,' but Keleher hasn't released the report" Angie Camacho, a Spanish teacher at Padre Rufo, said in an interview.

"We haven't seen the report," said English teacher Jorge Wong, "so Keleher's claims don't hold up."

If Keleher succeeds in keeping the school closed, it becomes more likely that it will close permanently--and most likely reopen as a privately-run charter school.

Wong speculated that larger forces may be at work because the school sits within an area that developers are trying to turn into an exclusive community. "They have grocery stores, a gym, restaurants...what they're lacking is a school" for the upper-middle-class residents of the high-rise condos nearby.

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IF THE teachers at Padre Rufo were organizing to open the school, the teachers at Escuela Rafael Hernández are fighting to keep the Department of Education from closing their school, which had served as a provider of essential services to the community for two weeks.

On entering the school campus, you can read the sign posted on the gate that says: "By order of Sr. Luis A. Orengo [regional superintendent], all community services are suspended, including the lunch program."

The school, located in a mountainous area near Guaynabo, is the one of only two in the area. If it closes, students would be forced to travel far to the next nearest one. So simply requiring students to go to another school would present a hardship for many families.

"[They've] lost everything, their roofs, their places to live, their food, and now they're losing their school," FMPR President Mercedes Martinez told protesters. "For me, what hurts the most is that the Department of Education is taking advantage of our pain to close our schools."

As this article was being written, teachers and parents at Rafael Hernández were planning a rally and press conference to protest the closure of their school.

Success for struggles like those at Rafael Hernández--and an island-wide FMPR-called protest November 9 to demand school openings--can send a message to U.S. and Puerto Rican elites that they can't use working people's crises as an opportunity for profit.

In addressing the aftermath of Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico, the FMPR recalled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

The federal government, Governor Roselló and Secretary Keleher have publicly stated that the plan that they are following is similar to the one the city of New Orleans implemented after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What they aren't telling the country is that in New Orleans, they pushed tens of thousands of African American families out of the city, closed all of the public schools, fired teachers and eventually created a system of private charter schools that have been a disaster.

As Puerto Rico's teachers, parents and students fight for schools that all students deserve, they will need our solidarity to prevent a Katrina-style disaster for public education.