Hampered by blocked roads and power outages, schools in Puerto Rico may not reopen full-time for weeks or even months as many campuses on the island remain without electricity and running water in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
The island is home to one of the nation's largest and poorest school systems, with 347,000 students in more than 1,100 schools scattered across the island. The extended school closures may not only delay education for schoolchildren but also sever a lifeline for students who rely on schools for free lunches and clean drinking water.
Officials have no timeline for when all schools will reopen, but in the interim they plan to use many campuses as "service centers," where students can come for a meal and informal, half-day classes, and where families can get clean drinking water and meet with disaster relief officials. Ten schools opened Monday in San Juan and a dozen more are slated to open this week. None has power.
"What we want to do is open up schools so people have a place to get help," said Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico's education secretary.
The storm has driven many families from the island, and school systems in the continental United States are bracing for an influx of evacuees. School systems from Upstate New York to South Florida have enrolled new students from Puerto Rico since the hurricane struck.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools had welcomed 31 new students from the territory as of last week. "We believe that that's going to grow exponentially," said Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho.
Even as Puerto Ricans on the island face myriad challenges — lack of clean water, shuttered hospitals and growing scarcity of food — advocates said reopening schools and providing safe spaces for children to learn should be a priority. Outside of school, children face other risks, including injury from debris. In communities isolated by wreckage, fears grow that children will fall ill from drinking contaminated water.
Many parents are eager to get back to work or to rebuild homes, but they can't because there is no one to look after their children. Patients have been arriving at San Juan's pediatric hospital with broken limbs and other injuries from clambering over debris in the streets.
"Children are literally on the streets with nothing else to do, without any kind of support," said Ricardo Agudelo, head of Centro de Ayuda Social, which provides free meals to the homeless and after-school programs for special-needs children.
Aida Diaz, president of Puerto Rico's teachers union, said she has surveyed schools in and around San Juan. Some have lost roofs or have had all their windows broken. Others have debris — including downed power lines — crisscrossing schoolyards. The school system still cannot reach officials at more than half of the schools on the island to determine the extent of the damage to school buildings.
The school system was beleaguered by financial difficulties long before Hurricane Maria hit. As an economic crisis deepened, families left Puerto Rico, taking their children with them, and the school system has lost about 18,000 students over the last year. As the island grappled with a deepening debt crisis, Keleher moved to close 179 schools to save $7 million.
In the mountainous town of Utuado, reopening the school seems like an impossible proposition. Monday, English teacher Midge Battistini surveyed the damage a landslide did to her lakefront home — the one she rebuilt after Hurricane Georges two decades ago — and could not believe her eyes. The mud slid off the hillside and seeped into her home.
Even as supervisors called her and her colleagues to return to school Monday, Battistini was skeptical students would show up. The landslide had clogged roadways with mud, making it impossible for many residents to reach town.
"For what?! There won't be any kids to teach," Battistini said.
Schoolchildren have nowhere to go in these mountains, where the nights are pitch black, the days are spent trekking long distances down the mountain for food or gas, and bathing happens in mountain spring water.
The school system is expecting many teachers and students to leave the island for good in the wake of the storm — an exodus that will compound the challenges for recovery.
"I'm taking my girls to the states," said Carmen Ortiz, who has a son living in Pennsylvania. Her eldest daughter is studying agriculture in a local college, and her teenager is in 10th grade. "They want to move and finish their studies there."
Keleher said she is hoping to get schools generators so they can reopen but understands the school system's needs have taken a back seat to other operations, such as hospitals and police stations. Now, she is contemplating how she might open schools even without electricity. She said she wants to get creative — to deliver an education to children any way she can.
"What did our grandparents do when they went to school? How do you teach in a place where there isn't a classroom?" Keleher said.
For now, Keleher wants teachers to talk to students about the storm and its aftermath, and about how they can help their communities recover. It's what educators call "project-based learning" — teaching children by having them address real-life problems in their communities. And on the island, there is no shortage of them.
"Teach them that they have an opportunity to be a problem-solver," Keleher said.