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Florida Schools Begin Enrolling Puerto Rican Hurricane Evacuees

Principal Wanda Alvarez stands on the remains of the private school El Eden Paraiso Infantil in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.
Pedro Portal/The Miami Herald
Principal Wanda Alvarez stands on the remains of the private school El Eden Paraiso Infantil in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria have already arrived at Florida’s public schools.

Broward County schools took in 128 hurricane refugees last week, mainly from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Miami-Dade district enrolled 31 from Puerto Rico, in addition to the 16 students from the Keys and two from Texas the district got after Irma and Harvey.

School leaders are preparing for what could be a much bigger influx.

“If there's one system in America that can actually respond quickly to these types of situations, it is a system like Miami,” Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said during a recent interview in his downtown office. “We are ready to embrace them, to hug them, to love them and to teach them.”

In the short term, that means registering them quickly and making sure they’re fed, clothed and have school supplies.

Typically, transfer students have to produce transcripts and proof of residence when they register. But some districts here are waiving those requirements for now, getting kids signed up for school and worrying about the necessary documents later.

The federal government has directed school districts to classify students displaced by storms as “homeless.” That means they’ll automatically qualify for free breakfast and lunch and might be able to get transportation more easily.

In Orange County, the district is working with businesses and nonprofits to provide the necessities for incoming students.

The schools there have admitted about 40 kids impacted by recent natural disasters, including the earthquakes in Mexico. Orlando already has a major Puerto Rican population.

Scott Howat, the Orange County district’s spokesman, said kids are expected to arrive without clothes or school supplies. J.C. Penney provided the district with 420 backpacks, and administrators are now gathering items to fill them with.“We want them to know that they're welcome, and we want to get them into the learning environment as quickly as possible,” he said.

Once they’re in school, they may need English language instruction and counseling.

Depending on how many new students arrive, schools may need more faculty and staff. Howat said he hopes adults qualified to take on jobs as teachers, bus drivers and facilities maintenance workers will come with the new students. The district will put them to work, he said.

In South Florida, Carvalho said Miami schools are used to accommodating students from countries that are ravaged by natural disasters, political repression and war. The district took in some children from Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Relocating isn’t cheap, though, so many of the Haitian families that made their way to South Florida were among the more affluent.

“We certainly hope that with kids from Puerto Rico, it is different,” Carvalho said.

“We hope that there are vehicles and mechanisms by which any kid who is in need, who currently who faces the prospect of no education over the next four or five months, has a safe, secure way of making it to the mainland and continuing their studies here,” he said.

Puerto Rico’s schools likely won’t open for a while. They’ve been closed for two weeks already, and the island’s education secretary, Julia Keleher, has said it would be at least mid-October before school could resume in some places.

Carvalho said he spoke to Keleher shortly after the storm and offered his assistance. She told him they were in crisis mode.

“Their number one priority is going to be the basics: assessing the integrity of the schools from an infrastructure perspective, getting water and electricity restored, and ensuring that their workforce is viable to do so,” Carvalho said.

The hurricanes hit shortly after 40,000 Puerto Rican educators affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, a national union. Its leader, Randi Weingarten, said many schools are currently being used as shelters and community hubs.

She visited a public elementary school in Homestead last week, where the local union distributed drinks and snacks to teachers who are still feeling Irma’s aftereffects. There, she echoed Carvalho’s assessment: Puerto Rican schools and their employees are concerned about survival, not recovery.

“Our goal is to work with the officials of the island to open up schools as soon as possible,” Weingarten said. “But the union's goal is also to make sure that people are safe and they get their primary needs met: shelter, electricity, water.”

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.