Puerto Rico reopening some schools after hurricane devastation

Some public schools in Puerto Rico will begin to reopen Tuesday, a small step toward normalcy weeks after Hurricane Maria plowed across the US territory.

Classes begin Tuesday in regions on opposite ends of the island, in San Juan and Mayaguez, according to education officials.

For some of the US territory’s 345,000 students, the resuming of classes is a major step. Roughly 3 million Puerto Ricans, or more than 80% of the island’s residents, have no power. About a third of households are without reliable drinking water.

Of the more than 1,100 public schools on the island, dozens were badly damaged, hundreds are serving as community centers and more than 70 others are used to shelter families who lost their homes.

Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher said last week that she wanted to resume classes for all as soon as possible. But she wanted repairs made first to ensure the safety of students and teachers.

“Schools are open as community centers around the island,” she said in a video posted on the education department Facebook page. “This allows families to return to work and assures our children and members of school communities have access to a warn meal.”

She said some schools in Bayamon, in the northern coastal valley, and in the southern city of Ponce are expected to reopen on October 30.

“Once we are certain that our students are safe, we will continue to open schools,” she said.

Keleher said the US Army Corp of Engineers has been evaluating school buildings. In addition, the education department has consulted the teachers’ union about recovering lost classroom time as well as state education officials in the US mainland about ensuring a smooth transition for students whose families have left the island.

‘They will … use the arts to heal’

In Corazal, Ezequiel Torres Rivas, 15, has no idea when he’ll return to school. His family lost their home and their possessions, and they’re living at a shelter set up in a school.

They sleep on cots in a brightly-painted classroom, where decorations still adorn the walls and a large plastic bucket surrounded by water jugs serve as the kitchen sink.

Ezequiel said he looked forward to returning to school.

“That’s where I saw all my friends, where I talked to them,” he said. “Now we don’t know when classes will start.”

Still, the possibility that the school year could be extended past June to make up for lost time did not appeal to the teenager.

“If classes don’t start, we won’t have a summer,” he said. “Summer is a blessing. We go to the beaches, to the river.”