2 Schools Reopen Their Doors In Puerto Rico

Oct 6, 2017
Originally published on October 6, 2017 9:10 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's an update on hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico. About 54 percent of the population, a little more than half, has clean drinking water now; 9 percent have electricity. We know those numbers thanks to a Spanish language website run by the Puerto Rican government. We no longer know them from the federal government. The Washington Post reported those unflattering numbers were removed from a website run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA says the information is available in other ways. Now, some schools in Puerto Rico are now open. NPR's Lauren Migaki and Merrit Kennedy visited two, as we're going to hear. Lauren goes first.

LAUREN MIGAKI, BYLINE: Just one week after the storm, St. John's School welcomed its students back.

LORRAINE LAGO: The way for us to help Puerto Rico recover was to get up and get going and sort of lead the way.

MIGAKI: Head of School Lorraine Lago believes they were one of the very first schools here to reopen.

LAGO: I had my doubts, I'll tell you. This is too soon, this is - are we pushing? But people needed to see each other.

MIGAKI: St. John's was relatively unscathed in the storm. The elite private school, which costs up to $12,000 a year, also has two diesel generators to keep the lights on and AC running. Kids who came back in the first week were put to work figuring out a real life math problem.

LAGO: How are we going to plan when we open school? If we don't have power, how long is our diesel going to last?

MIGAKI: Another big challenge, students here are used to having internet access.

LAGO: We're sort of going old school. We're doing, you know, paper-pencil projects.

MIGAKI: The school is setting up a Wi-Fi hotspot for those nervous graduating seniors applying to college. Aside from the academics though, teachers here are worried about trauma.

LAGO: The anxiety before the hurricane for the little ones was really intense. I think that teenagers hold a little bit more anxiety now about, you know, what does this mean? Some are facing the reality that life is frail.

MIGAKI: Down the hall, Nina Mendez-Marti is teaching an art class. During the hurricane, her family's roof tiles blew off. She lugged the terra-cotta fragments to school in bags. And she asked the students to paint them.

NINA MENDEZ-MARTI: To think about that moment when the hurricane was coming.

MIGAKI: She points to a jagged tile fragment painted black with white and pink splotches and says one of her students experienced the hurricane from the roof of her house.

MENDEZ-MARTI: She saw so many dead animals and dead trees and just, like, death around her. And I asked her to paint that feeling. And the black and the gray is all the death that she saw around her.

MIGAKI: But, she says, the pink and white splotches represent hope. It's a sentiment that NPR's Merrit Kennedy found at another school that's managed to open six miles away.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Speaking Spanish).

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: It's early in the morning, and students are lining up at Escuela Gaspar Vila Mayans, a public elementary school in a low-income area in Rio Piedras that usually has about 200 kids.

RITA BARRETO: They lost almost everything - the clothes, the furniture, the food.

KENNEDY: That's the principal, Rita Barreto. The school is open during mornings now and about a quarter of the students are able to attend. It's not clear when it'll be back to full capacity. But Barreto says food is a big reason why the school is open, after the community removed scattered tree branches and debris that were covering the school grounds. This morning, they're dishing up oatmeal and applesauce. Parents and kids who go to other schools are also welcome to eat.

And leftovers are going to be handed out to elderly people. Barreto says some kids told her it was their first full meal since the storm.

YENY FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KENNEDY: Yeny Fernandez, who has three boys, says that the little food they had got eaten quickly after Maria. And when she found out yesterday that the school would be open, her boys couldn't sleep because they were so excited. In fact, Barreto says that while it was closed, the students reminded them of the urgency to open again.

BARRETO: They just were going around the school and asking and asking and asking again.

KENNEDY: She shows us the first grade classroom that's badly damaged. Portions of the roof were raised off and are in heaping, soggy piles on the floor. We don't spend much time here. They've opened a new classroom for those first graders. And here, students are drawing pictures to show how they experienced the hurricane.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible) was raining so, so, so fast.

NORA ORTIZ NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

KENNEDY: A few minutes later, the school's social worker, Nora Ortiz Navarro, is leading about 40 very attentive students in a breathing exercise about dealing with stress.

NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

KENNEDY: "Even though the students have lost academic time," Navarro says, "the priority right now is making sure they're doing okay emotionally." Barreto points to signs of recovery. Once destroyed, the trees are slowly turning green again.

BARRETO: The most important thing for me today and tomorrow is that they can come here. And if they want to cry, they can cry. But it's really important for me that they found their place again.

KENNEDY: Merrit Kennedy.

MIGAKI: And Lauren Migaki, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.