“A community without a school…is a vacant community,” Verónica Dávila, a second-grade teacher at a rural Puerto Rico school, told Vox. “It’s actually a dead community.”
Puerto Rico’s educational crisis hardly began with Hurricane Maria, but the weather catastrophe has certainly made their struggle more difficult. In May of 2017, the island’s department of education closed nearly 180 schools due to the government’s $120 billion debt. Then approximately 400 of the island’s remaining 1,100 schools were heavily damaged in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma in September of the same year. The storms also left most of the surviving schools without power for months.
In early April of 2018, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education announced that it would need to close 283 schools, despite a half billion-dollar investment from the federal Department of Education into their workings. Four lawsuits involving nearly 70 of those schools are fighting to prevent the closures, calling the decision premature. On June 13, a judge blocked the closure of nine schools on the basis that the DoE did not prove need.
The Puerto Rico Teachers Association, which sued over the school closures, celebrated the judge’s decision. “Justice was served,” Puerto Rico Teachers Association President Aida Diaz said. “This ruling demonstrates that…nobody has absolute authority to make arbitrary decisions over the rights of our people.”
But with the end of the school year, more than 250 schools are still scheduled to close their doors for good, nearly a quarter of all the remaining schools in the territory. The Department of Education is appealing the decision on those nine saved schools, so it’s in the air if they’ll close at well. That leaves 835 schools to serve 319,000 students.
One of the reasons that the DoE is citing for the closures is a loss of students, and it’s true that many families with children have been abandoning the territory for the U.S. mainland in the wake of the hurricanes and an 11-year recession. They note that enrollment has dropped by nearly 40,000 students in a single school year, and many of the closing schools have been operating at 60-percent capacity. But without those schools, many remaining students will have to travel long commutes to school.