This column contains a correction.
On January 7, an earthquake badly damaged Escuela Agripina Seda, a 250-student middle school in southwestern Puerto Rico. The earthquake hit at 4:00 in the morning, just hours before classes were due to resume following the Christmas break. Since December, more than 500 earthquakes, including one that registered 6.4 in magnitude, have rocked the island, which is still recovering from the occurrence of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
In the wake of a magnitude-5.9 earthquake that caused further damage along Puerto Rico’s southern coast on January 11, Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez closed all of the U.S. territory’s schools, saying that they would remain closed until a safety inspection of all buildings and grounds was completed. Hernández Pérez noted that up to 95 percent of Puerto Rico’s public schools were not up to current earthquake building codes, despite the island’s location close to where two tectonic plates meet.
The school closures deal yet another blow to the education of Puerto Rico’s schoolchildren. According to a recent analysis, these students missed an average of 78 days of school in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. It remains to be seen how many school days students will miss due to the earthquakes.
Puerto Rico’s students cannot afford to miss any more school. When math results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the United States’ report card on the progress of its public schools—were released, Puerto Rico was the poorest performer in a group that also included all 50 states and Washington, D.C.* The island received an average score of 190 for fourth-grade students, a full 49 points below Louisiana, the U.S. state ranked last, which scored a 239.
Dates to reopen some schools and resume classes have been announced, but other schools remain closed indefinitely. And while the education secretary has deemed 20 percent of the island’s schools safe to open, the Puerto Rican media has cast doubt on the adequacy of the structural reviews of school buildings.
In 2017, as part of its response to Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) identified structural damages to the island’s public schools. When then-Secretary of Education Julia Keleher pushed to delay reopening schools, there was a clamor among teacher unions to reopen as soon as possible.
To facilitate and provide transparency for the school infrastructure review process after Hurricane Maria, PRDE leadership published the findings from each of the school inspections. PRDE also created a program to allow schools to “certify” their mitigation efforts. In consultation with the school community, school directors certified that their schools were safe and ready to reopen.
Additionally, PRDE worked in collaboration with the Trump administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to evaluate all 1,110 public schools in Puerto Rico to catalog the damage and determine the total funding needed to make schools safe. Many people are aware that FEMA’s housing help in response to both Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes was slow in arriving—plagued by bureaucratic delays and regulations that failed to take into account the hundreds of thousands of people who had no clear title to their properties. Less widely publicized, however, are the delays and capricious policy decisions that FEMA has advanced with respect to Puerto Rico’s schools.
FEMA estimated the necessary funding to be $22 million per high-priority school—those most severely damaged by the hurricane. This estimate included seismic retrofitting and bringing the buildings up to code. However, FEMA—in violation of its own policies—drastically reduced its estimate to $4 million per high-priority school by removing the seismic retrofitting option and bringing the buildings up to code only in the context of repairs. Then-Secretary Keleher raised public objections to the decision to reduce funding.
The reconstruction of Puerto Rico’s public schools; its right to equal school funding; and students’ right to be educated in a safe, high-quality learning environment must become and remain a topic of daily discourse—in Washington and on the island—until the work has been completed. Just as importantly, it is imperative that lawmakers recognize the urgency of reconstructing public schools in Puerto Rico, as well as advocate strongly for full funding and the flexibility to design solutions that fit Puerto Rico’s unique context. Prior to Hurricane Maria, approximately half of Puerto Rico’s students attended private schools, a testament to the dismal quality of its public schools. After the hurricane, thousands of students left the island. With a dwindling student population, the number of public schools needed in Puerto Rico is a valid and vital debate to have. It is abundantly clear that Puerto Rico’s people and their concerns can no longer be forgotten or ignored.
There is no downplaying the devasting impact of Hurricane Maria, yet it also created a rare opportunity to rebuild Puerto Rico’s school system and create a new footprint that would be consistent with its population size, address long-standing construction issues, and serve as a hub for other community services, such as health care services. PRDE leadership, elected officials, the business community, community leaders, and families should share responsibility for providing answers to these questions and being part of the solution.
It’s too painful to imagine the loss of life had students been in their classrooms at Escuela Agripina Seda when the earthquake hit. It is impossible to know just how many other schools are equally at risk of collapsing when another earthquake or natural disaster strikes school buildings that have been deemed safe without proper retrofitting. But it should not take a natural disaster to shine a spotlight on Puerto Rico’s public schools. The PRDE and political leadership in Puerto Rico have a responsibility to the public to make progress in the reconstruction of public schools. To ignore this responsibility would be the equivalent of taking discriminatory action against the island’s youth and perpetuating the existence of a failed public education system.
Laura Jimenez is the director of standards and accountability on the K-12 Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.
* Correction, February 21, 2020: This column has been updated to clarify that the NAEP data are from 2017.