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Back to school in Puerto Rico, but still without power

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Andrea Olivero, 11, consults her classmate Ada about an exercise during their daily English class at San Juan’s Sotero Figueroa Elementary School. The task: list the positive and negative aspects of Hurricane Maria’s passing almost two months ago.

The girls only have to look around. There is no electricity and they “roast” in the heat, Andrea says. At the back of the room, computers and televisions collect dust.

“We would like to move past the topic of the hurricane a bit. It is already getting repetitive,” Andrea told AFP.

She is one of more than 300,000 pupils in the public education system, although only half of schools are functioning. Barely 42 per cent of Puerto Ricans have electricity seven weeks after Maria struck, killing at least 51 in the American territory.

The lack of power has prompted disorienting timetable changes on the tropical island, to avoid both the hottest hours of the day and the use of dining facilities.

“The children are very anxious. We manage to make progress in lessons and they change the hours again. Everything is messed up and we fall behind,” English teacher Joan Rodriguez explained.

“We can’t use the computers to illustrate classes,” she said. “They are reading the novel “Charlotte’s Web,” and we wanted to do exercises comparing it to the film version. But we cannot use the television.”

– Suspicions –

From October 23, some directors reopened their schools in the western region of Mayaguez and San Juan.

But last Thursday, the Department of Education ordered their closure, insisting they must be evaluated by engineering and architectural firms, then certified by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

One of those schools was Vila Mayo, also in San Juan. The community presumed it would open, as it had been used as a shelter, its electrical infrastructure had been inspected and it had not suffered structural damage.

But Luis Orengo, the education department’s director in San Juan, told protesters outside the school it was closed as inspectors’ findings had not reached the central government.

“This is unacceptable! The school is ready to give classes but they don’t want to open it. Our children cannot lose a year,” fumed Enid Guzman, who protested with her 11-year-old son, Reanny De la Cruz.

There are suspicions the stalled reopening of schools is, in part, related to the prior closure of 240 schools over the past year during Puerto Rico’s long-running financial crisis.

The fiscal difficulties have seen the island’s population drop over the past decade by 14 percent, leading in turn to a fall in school enrolment.

Before the storms, 300 schools were at risk of closure — and for the president of Puerto Rico’s federation of teachers, Mercedes Martinez, the government’s aim is clear.

“Secretary (Julia) Keleher seems to have an orchestrated plan to close schools,” she said, referring to the education secretary. “Why do you have to wait 30 days to get a certification so a school can open?”

Keleher has announced she expects most schools to be open by the middle of November.


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