Survey: Students, Educators in Puerto Rico Discuss the Ways Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Political Upheaval, and COVID Have Impacted Learning

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Last spring students, teachers, and parents all across the United States struggled to find ways to stay on track with education as the COVID-19 pandemic closed down schools and moved learning online this spring. Now, with the Trump administration pressuring the public school system to open back up, they’re struggling with how they even consider doing that, or how they can keep learning online. One community hit especially hard by these scenarios is Puerto Rico, which had already spent several years reeling from a series of recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and longstanding financial and political strife.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, from 2013 to 2017, the four years leading up to the Hurricane María, the first of a series of natural disasters that caused widespread damages to the island, 84% of Puerto Rico’s school children were living in high poverty areas, defined by the U.S. Census as areas with poverty rates of at least 30%. In June 2018, about nine months after that storm, the island’s economic outlook was so battered that about 300 of its schools had permanently closed, and aVOX report from that time period showed that the closures displaced about a quarter of the school-age population (about 60,000 students).

UnidosUS has been working to provide coronavirus relief grants to its Affiliates, such as Puerto Rico’s One Stop Career Center, to help mitigate the many stressors this latest crisis has caused Puerto Rican families. It has also been communicating with the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico to gain a better understanding of how students and educators have been managing. As part of that contact, the club provided UnidosUS with an informal survey.

Not surprisingly, those interviewed said the struggle is very real, but they also showed a sense of hope and resilience, both key qualities for becoming advocates of grassroots organizing and larger policy change.

“I’ve had three interruptions in my education, as a result of the various factors like Hurricane Maria, the earthquakes, and now the pandemic,” said one recently graduated senior. The student said they and their classmates made it through this past schoolyearby staying connected through WhatsApp chats and other online educational platforms, but that maintaining hope was no easy process.

“The change has been dramatic because you cannot predict the future, and so you are forced to look for solutions in the midst of each situation,” they said.

But they said parents and the Boys and Girls Club itself have been instrumental in thinking critically for how to do that by getting them engaged in online social activities and simply providing words of encouragement.

They said these experiences have prompted them to want to gather students together to push the government to provide more training for remote learning, and they said any community dealing with crises like these should be creating support groups since, as they noted “not everyone has the capacity to cope with atypical situations like these.”

Another Boys and Girls Club student said their classmates had already started using social media to raise those concerns and had come to recognize that work as their civic engagement, their “grain of sand” contribution. They said rethinking the way they use social media has helped them to reorganize their own critical thinking process, but that in addition to support groups, individual mentoring could also be instrumental.

“The best help an adolescent can get would be to have a mentor who can guide and provide ideas to develop during the quarantine,” they said. They also advised that these mentors focus less on discussing the problem more on what’s going right—or what could. They said the constant reminder of the struggle prompts them to shut down mentally and emotionally.

“For that reason, I feel it is neither comfortable nor necessary to mention the subject continuously,” they said.

So how do they propose moving around that elephant in the room and on Zoom?

They proposed a weekly “challenge” where students have some kind of fun, dynamic problem-solving activity that gets them motivated to feel that they can accomplish something, even when life couldn’t feel more stuck.

But many of the teachers said it was pretty much impossible not to acknowledge the obvious challenges and that is was better to empower the students to be agents of their own change. These challenges include:

  • School closures due to budget cuts and structural damage caused by earthquakes, hurricanes, and the pandemic.
  • A faulty electric grid that makes it hard for students and educators to charge their computers, tablets, and smartphones.
  • The ability to concentrate amid sweltering heat without fans or air conditioning.
  • Longstanding discontentment with politicians on and off the island whom critics say have not acted to make all of the above scenarios more preventable.

With these challenges in mind, some of the teachers surveyed they often shared with their students their past struggles and responses to them. One teacher spoke of learning to participate in protests as a student at the University of Puerto Rico, then spoke of how protests had across Puerto Rico and the mainland United States have been instrumental in creating change. Their biggest example? The way street protests in the summer of 2019 calling for the impeachment of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló led him to step down.

“Without a doubt, it has been a challenge, not impossible, but a challenge,” the teacher noted of the many educational roadblocks. “We will continue to reinvent ourselves, seeing how we can push our students forward because despite all the interruptions, the teaching profession and our passion for teaching has not stopped.”

The teacher said a large part of acting on that passion revolved around boosting the students’ belief in themselves.

“I believe a lot in my students, and I have a lot of hope in the Puerto Rico that is to come. It is in their hands,” they said.

“Puerto Rico’s students and teachers are part of the U.S. school system, and they deserve the same resources and support as students and teachers in any U.S. state,” UnidosUS Vice President of Education and Workforce Development Peggy McLeod told “Between hurricanes, earthquakes, political crises, and now the pandemic, they have been through so much upheaval. We continue to ask federal authorities to respond to their needs, and we will stay abreast of what’s happening on the ground through ongoing contact with our Affiliates and partners.”