YABUCOA, PUERTO RICO — Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through this valley town in the southeastern corner of the island, obliterating homes and bringing months of darkness and misery, families marked a new milestone in the long road to recovery: the first day of a new school year.
Children streamed into Rosa Costa Valdivieso middle school, where the Category 4 hurricane shattered nearly every window and ripped doors off their hinges on Sept. 20 when it first made landfall in Yabucoa.
On Monday, however, the school betrayed few signs of the storm. New windows gleamed in the sunlight as students took their seats in classrooms freshly painted in pastel pink and yellow.
But while the school appeared relatively unscathed, Hurricane Maria has left deep scars in the town. Children grieve the loss of friends and family members who fled to the mainland, part of an exodus of 27,000 students in the months immediately following the storm. The suicide prevention hotline has seen an alarming spike in calls from desperate residents. And in the mountains surrounding the town, blue tarps still cover dozens of homes where the roofs have yet to be repaired.
Yabucoa "is recovering little by little," said Aricelis Fuentes as she dropped off her daughter Naomi Melendez at school for the first day of eighth grade. After weeks without running water and nine months without power following the hurricane, life was slowly returning to normal, she said. The first day of school marked a new beginning.
Across Puerto Rico, the start of classes revealed an island drastically altered by Hurricane Maria. Enrollment dropped from 347,000 students at the start of the previous school year to roughly 312,000. (After an initial wave following Maria, more families left over the summer.)
Dozens of schools were still badly in need of repairs. A survey of the island's 856 schools conducted by the Association of Puerto Rican Teachers the week before classes started found leaky roofs, mold and unusable bathrooms. One school had a rat infestation, according to the survey. Another was still littered with hurricane debris.
At Carlos Rivera Ufret middle school in the town of Humacao, a 20-minute drive north of Yabucoa, the air conditioning no longer worked and mold was growing in the classrooms, according to a teacher at the school. A tarp covered the principal's office, where the roof was still missing.
Puerto Rico's schools suffered $142 million in damage, according to an estimate from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and it will likely be six months before the repairs are completed, said Puerto Rico's Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. Although most of the island's schools reopened last year by mid-November after some initial repairs, it wasn't possible to fix all of the remaining damage during summer break. Part of the problem is that some construction supplies — including windows — aren't readily available, Keleher said.
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Against the backdrop of recovery, an ambitious school reform initiative has provoked fierce opposition from parents and teachers.
Over the summer, the Department of Education closed 254 schools, part of a plan in the works before the hurricane that was accelerated when thousands of students left the island. About 500 of the island's 1,110 schools were less than 60 percent full after Maria, Keleher said. As Puerto Rico grapples with crippling debt and severe budget cuts, officials are consolidating schools so that the department's limited resources aren't spread as thin.
"By consolidating schools and putting more students in the same location you can make investments whether it's investments for materials or technology or human resources that will allow you to provide a greater benefit at a lower cost to the greatest number of students," Keleher said. The island will save at least $14 million in school operation costs, according to the education department's estimate.
But the closures mean thousands of students and teachers are headed to new schools this year. Losing a beloved neighborhood school has been painful for some families, who have questioned the decision and even sued to keep the schools open. (Some of the lawsuits have failed in court; others are still pending.) Parents also criticize a lack of communication from school officials. Some families told the Miami Herald that they learned their neighborhood school was closing from social media posts or from the local news.
As school officials scrambled to relocate children and staff in the weeks leading up to the start of the semester, the Association of Puerto Rican Teachers criticized what it characterized as "chaos" in the school system. On Monday, the union reported missing teachers and a lack of supplies at some schools.
"You have a child who comes from this traumatic experience and is going to arrive at a school where there aren't teachers, where there aren't enough classrooms or where it's uncomfortable. That's going to cause an additional trauma," said union president Aida Díaz. She said that while she understands the need to close some schools, the closures are too extensive and are happening too soon after the hurricane. "I don't think it should have been done at this moment because more than anything else it harms the child," she said.
An announcement on Wednesday that the education department was buying portables to house students while schools are repaired sparked more indignation. At a protest Friday in San Juan, teachers said they didn't understand why the education department was using portables while dozens of schools sat empty.
"I'm extremely outraged," said Elda Gautier, a Spanish teacher who works in the town of Canóvanas, 30 minutes southeast of the capital. Although there have always been problems at the start of the school year, she added, "this year has been the worst."
It's not just the closures that are shaking up the school system. An education reform law passed earlier this year has allowed charter schools in Puerto Rico for the first time. After beating a lawsuit the teacher's union filed to block the creation of charter schools, the education department announced Sunday afternoon that the island's first charter would open in San Juan this fall. More will likely open the following school year.
Keleher said that while she understands why school closures have caused anxiety, she felt it was important to move forward with efforts to reform a school system in which students lag behind their peers on the mainland. (On a recent standardized math test given to fourth- and eighth-graders across the United States, for example, Puerto Rican students scored far below the national average.)
"We have had a series of attempts to try to improve achievement on the island and it hasn't happened," Keleher said. "There's a balance from a leadership moment of trying to make sure that you have sufficient urgency, that I don't fall into the disposition of allowing just one more year to pass," she added.
In Yabucoa, however, where several schools closed over the summer, the change has been difficult for some families.
"I'm afraid, nervous," said Jesenia Melendez, 13, who was starting eighth grade at Rosa Costa Valdivieso middle school after her neighborhood school closed. "That was where we were all together."
Principal Victoria Garcia, who is also new to the school, said she fielded calls from worried parents and teachers in the days leading up to the start of the new school year.
But although Garcia's previous school had also closed, she was trying to make the best of the change. When she first arrived at Rosa Costa Valdivieso over the summer, she found broken windows and water leaking into the classrooms. The teachers helped her clean the school and repaint the classrooms. By the start of the new school year, the major repairs had been completed.
"I'm happy and I have great people around me," she said as she visited the classrooms one by one to introduce herself to new students. "Everything has been 100 percent."
After a school year filled with surprises and challenges, social worker Julio Isales said he was optimistic about the new semester. "This year is going to be glorious, full of blessings. This year is going to be extraordinary because there are no hurricanes coming," he said. "We're not ready."