Tanzina Vega: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. We just heard about some of the long-term mental health effects that Hurricane Maria has had on many Puerto Ricans. As our last guest mentioned, Maria's impact on schools is still highly visible. In the three years since Maria devastated the island, hundreds of public schools have closed, and many of the closures are the result of budget cuts, as well as the departure of hundreds of thousands of residents to the mainland United States.
A series of earthquakes earlier this year further damaged schools for more than 10,000 students on the island. Now the pandemic represents the latest challenge for education in Puerto Rico, only around 54% of the island's households have internet access and an executive order issued by Governor Wanda Vazquez earlier this month delayed the start of in-person learning until further notice.
Last week, the Trump administration announced a $2 billion FEMA grant intended to restore damaged public school buildings and facilities in Puerto Rico, but the grant is just a fraction of the $11 billion that Puerto Rico's former Education Secretary estimated was needed to repair the island schools in 2019. For more, I'm joined by Tatiana Diaz Ramos, a reporter for El Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in San Juan. Tatiana, thanks for joining me.
Tatiana Diaz Ramos: Hello.
Tanzina: What were the conditions like in Puerto Rico school system prior to the pandemic?
Tatiana: Prior to the pandemic, there were a lot of effective schools, more than 300 schools affected by the earthquakes going on in the beginning of the year, especially for schools in the south area of Puerto Rico. Prior to that, there hasn't been a lot of maintenance for the schools and for the infrastructure. It was actually very poor since a long time. That obviously made everything worse when the earthquake actually happened. There were schools that weren't actually maintained a lot, so then aggravated everything.
Tanzina: What is the educational experience, Tatiana, look like in different parts of the island right now? We understand that in the southern part of the island where the earthquakes hit pretty severely not too long ago, that those schools are having a lot of trouble coming back. Is that reflected throughout the island?
Tatiana: Yes, and especially for those-- There are municipalities in the south that actually have no schools right now that are safe to go and have people in there, because the infrastructure was very affected by the earthquakes. Definitely you have kids in certain cities that won't be able to go back, even if the Governor of Puerto Rico actually has a new executive order allowing for students to go back to schools. They would have to probably go to take classes in trailers or install tents on open spaces, for example, that would be a temporary option for them.
Tanzina: Tatiana, that's something about open-air learning, if you will, and outside learning that we've been debating here in New York, and the climate here is not as hospitable, if you will, as it's not as warm as it is in Puerto Rico. Why is it taking so long for the Governor or the Department of Education on the island to make that call for outside learning?
Tatiana: Frankly, that's a question that many people are having right now. Why is it taking so long to actually really have a plan for these students, especially in the south area? The only thing that has been proposed until now, it's basically identifying spaces just in case if the executive order actually changes, and they can go back to in-person teaching, but that is still not a real plan that has been outlined for everybody to know or discuss.
Tanzina: Tatiana, what about Internet access? We mentioned in the introduction that about half of the island's homes have access to the internet. You can't do distance learning if you don't have internet access. What is the Puerto Rican government doing to ensure that if students cannot attend in-person learning that they can at least do it from home? Is there a plan to increase Internet access across the island?
Tatiana: Unfortunately, it's an issue that has been brought to the Department and the Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico. The whole process for acquiring equipment for students, they actually took much more time than they were supposed to. The contract for the acquisition of these equipment was signed around April, but still nowadays, after actually the beginning of the semester, only about 30% of the students have received their computer or their tablet to actually try and get into online classes.
Another claim that parents and teachers have also brought to the Secretary is that, why would they really want to give them some computer or tablet when they don't even have access to Internet. There has been an issue also. The Secretary hasn't been able to actually offer another choice for those families that don't have access to Internet. We have the situation of parents that not only have one kid in the public school system, sometimes they have two, or maybe three, and the only option for them to connect to the Internet is through their parent's phone.
Basically, they have to make a choice every day of, who is the student that will be able to take online classes that day, because there's only one device to get connected. Another thing is that, for example, you have students that live in very distant or rural areas, especially in the center of the island, for example. Definitely, the signal there and the Internet there is not the same as a student, for example, that lives in San Juan where they can also maybe find other places, maybe near home where they can access some free Wi-Fi or something to try and get into online classes also.
Tanzina: Tatiana, what about the federal relief package that we mentioned? The Trump administration announced $2 billion FEMA grant that was intended to restore damaged buildings and facilities in Puerto Rico. Can any of that money be used right now to remedy the issue?
Tatiana: I believe first thing is that the negotiation to actually have access to that money under the 428 Section of the Stafford Act, that agreement was supposed to be ready at least a year ago. It took until now to actually have the authorization to access that money. I don't know how longer it's going to take to actually see at least one project, actually see infrastructure being recovered or renewed right now.
The FEMA representative over here in Puerto Rico has said that this money is going to help to actually accelerate the projects, because before they had to be negotiating each project individually, and every time the estimated cost change, they had to, once again, present their proposal for that project. Hopefully, with this agreement, everything's going to pace up a little more. We really have to see if that's going to happen, especially now with the elections coming up and all that that implies.
Tanzina: Tatiana Diaz Ramos is a reporter for El Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Thanks so much, Tatiana.
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