For The First Time Since Hurricane Maria, Some Kids In Puerto Rico Went Back To School
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A bit of normalcy is returning to Puerto Rico, too. For the first time since Hurricane Maria hit, some parents got to drop their kids off at school. Elsewhere on the island, families and teachers are still waiting to go back, though. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Buenos dias.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Buenos dias.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Como estan?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Bien.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: This morning, it was all smiles at the Escuela Julio Selles Sola in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. Neftali Rodriguez brought his three kids back to school for the first time since it closed before Maria devastated the island.
NEFTALI RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "It was about time for classes to start," he said. "It feels good." About 200 public schools reopened today here in San Juan and in Mayaguez on the island's far west side. But some 900 schools remain closed across the island. In some cases, it's because of structural damage. Others have no electricity or running water, or they simply haven't been inspected for safety.
Inspections are being rolled out to the island's seven regions in phases. Schools in the least-affected regions are getting inspected first, those in the hardest-hit regions last. Julia Keleher is Puerto Rico's education secretary.
JULIA KELEHER: We're planning on addressing two regions every week. So that would put us in about the second week of November to have everybody back online.
FLORIDO: At some schools, though, teachers, parents and students say they're anxious to open now. The Escuela Federico Degetau is an elementary and middle school in Puerto Rico's rural Arecibo, the worst-hit of the seven regions. Teachers first showed up five days after the storm and started clearing away downed tree branches. They freshened up paint, set up a generator. They also closed off three classrooms that were damaged by a tree.
LUCIA VEGA: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: School Principal Lucia Vega proudly says her teachers have been coming every day because they want students back in the classroom. That's true for parents, too. Two weeks ago, close to 250 mothers and fathers piled into the bleachers along the basketball court. The parents called for the school to reopen as soon as possible. Yesterday, just before 8 o'clock, parents and their kids in uniform drove up to the bright green metal gate. The school's office secretary, Elizabeth Alisea, was there to deliver the bad news.
ELIZABETH ALISEA: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: She told parents the principal would communicate with everyone by hanging a banner with updates.
ALISEA: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "I see frustrated faces," Alisea said. "I see the kids bowing their little heads when I say, not yet. You can tell they're anxious to return." Marilyn Castillo walked up with her son Iancarlos Cruz - eighth grade, his last year here.
MARILYN CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "The longer we wait, the more the kids are going to fall behind," she said. Puerto Rico's education department has a huge task in front of it. Secretary Keleher said it's a task made immeasurably more difficult because most places still have no power, no phone service.
KELEHER: This is an education system, and its reopening after the passing of a Category 5 hurricane is going to happen in a way that's organized and controlled so that I can be sure that the well-being of every person who goes into a school building is guaranteed. So we have to ask for a little bit of patience.
FLORIDO: Some schools will never reopen. Many still need significant work, including Arecibo's Escuela Francisco Susoni. There, the storm flooded the first floor with 10 feet of water. Books and toys and laminated posters floated to the surface. Viviana Caquias is a first grade teacher there.
VIVIANA CAQUIAS: (Speaking Spanish).
FLORIDO: "You know, we teachers buy practically everything for our classrooms," she said. "I feel bad because I've been teaching for 20-something years, but now I've got nothing. It feels like my first day teaching again." She offered a warm goodbye and went back to painting her bare walls, her fingers smeared a pastel yellow. Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHARIS AND JASON ROMERO'S "LOST LULA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.