SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The beginning of a new school term in school is usually a time of reluctance for children, relief for parents, and stress for teachers. But 11 days after a devastating 6.4 magnitude earthquake rattled Puerto Rico, parents and teachers alike live in fear of the return to classes.
“My biggest worry is the kids. How are we supposed to evacuate 30 kids from a classroom that leaks when it rains too hard?” said Nannette Ortiz, who has been teaching for over 24 years and finds it hard to believe that schools are ready to receive students.
When the sun rose on an already startled awake Puerto Rico on the morning of January 7, pictures of collapsed homes, public buildings, and businesses began making their way through social media.
But it was the image of a three-story public school that had completely collapsed on itself in Guánica that shocked many and shed light on the severe structural issues the island’s Department of Education (DE) was facing.
Central Meteorológica y Geológica del Caribe pública las siguientes fotos en Facebook de la escuela Agripina Seda en Guanica. pic.twitter.com/y3CkkGuHVV
— Nuria Sebazco (@nsebazco) January 7, 2020
That same day, the Education Secretary Eligio Hernández said in a radio interview with Radio Isla that 95% of the public schools were not up to code.
This prompted the education department to act quickly and delay the start of the second term while a team of engineers went around the island inspecting the 850 schools for serious faults in structure.
Or at least, that’s what parents and teachers believed was going to happen. Instead, the DE released a statement saying that the inspections would only be looking for visible damage from the quakes, and not longstanding damage.
Not long after, people began denouncing on social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, how engineers would inspect schools in less than an hour and sign off on safety.
Several teachers contacted by Latino Rebels would only speak privately about the mistrust of the DE and the government, out of fear of retaliation by the department.
Their concerns were all the same: that a 7.0+ earthquake would strike while school was in session and crush their students and them; that the inspections are being rushed and not taking past structural issues into consideration; and carrying guilt of taking their students into classrooms they feel aren’t safe.
“I’ve lived through several situations where the Department of Education has failed to act and it’s up to the teachers and the principal to fend for ourselves,” Ortiz told Latino Rebels.
For parents like Mely Román, the distrust in the DE is so severe, she plans on ignoring what their official reports says and won’t send her daughters to school until she herself trusts that they have been properly inspected and deemed fit.
Román is a stay-at-home parent who lives in San Juan, where the quakes were felt, but have not caused severe structural damage like that seen in the southern municipalities like Guayanilla, Guánica, Yauco, and Ponce, among others.
“Our children are not safe. They [the DE] wants to rush through this process, and we don’t trust the government,” Román said.
The distrust of parents and teachers is not unfounded. After Hurricane María left a trail of destruction throughout the island, the Ricardo Rosselló administration was accused of hiding aid and withholding information from the public.
This created an environment of skepticism that was fueled during the Verano del 2019 protest that led to the Rosselló’s resignation.
On Friday, a school inspection report leaked where the engineer cleared a school in the northern municipality of Carolina to operate but stated that it had the same structural problem as the collapsed school in Guánica.
Later that night, the DE released a statement saying that 561 schools have been inspected, with 326 cleared to open. But, only 224 of those will open because those lying in the regions of Mayagüez and Ponce —the areas most affected by the quakes— will continue the inspection process.
The Department of Education also said that classes will now start on January 27, while teachers are expected to report on January 23 for disaster management training.
But Ortiz says returning to work is not the issue, but being in the schools is.
“If we have to go to work, there has to be a safe place for the kids. They are under our care, and they need to be in a secure space,” she said.
Natalia Rodríguez Medina is a journalist based in Puerto Rico. She tweets from @nataliarodmed.