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After a natural disaster

Schools' Response After a Natural Disaster: A Helping Hand in Troubled Times

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, officials are still trying to figure out how to get food, electricity, running water, and gas to the island’s 3.4 million residents.

Reopening schools is just one item on the long list of steps that would bring a sense of normalcy to the 350,000 Puerto Rican students who could use the comfort, stability, and protection that school offers. However, the schools on the island are not likely to open any time soon.

Aida Diaz, the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers), has visited 65 island schools. Diaz told Education Week that the damage includes flooding, collapsed structures, smashed windows, and downed electrical lines. It could be weeks or even months before residents have power restored, and longer still before schools can be repaired and reopened.

“If we get water and we get electricity, we can start [repairing schools]. We can clean the schools. We can prepare them [for students]. The teachers will do that. We can’t clean or do anything if we don’t have water,” Diaz said.

Now, educators across the country are pitching in — trying to find ways for Puerto Rican students to continue their education in the wake of recent storms.

The U.S. Department of Education suggested schools affected by any of this year’s hurricanes implement online learning while they rebuild, but that solution is limited by Puerto Rico’s current lack of infrastructure.

A more likely solution lies in other mainland U.S. school districts. Many are already preparing to welcome an influx of Puerto Rican students, including South Florida districts that are still recovering from Hurricane Irma.

Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, told the Miami Herald he anticipates hundreds or even thousands of Puerto Rican students coming to South Florida and the Orlando area: “Everybody is related to somebody on the island and they may not want their kids out of school for long periods of time,” Carvalho said.

Orlando’s Orange County Schools is making it easier for students to transfer into its schools by waiving document requirements and providing additional services for students, such as counseling and food.

Districts further up the East Coast are also preparing to welcome students from Puerto Rico.

In an open letter on Facebook signed by both the New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the New York City Department of Education wrote, “New York City public schools are open to all students in need, regardless of whether or not they have the necessary documentation to register, such as a birth certificate that could have been lost due to floods and chaos.”

In Massachusetts, Springfield Public Schools already has procedures for accepting students and assigning them to schools based on its experience with helping Somali refugees and students of charter schools that close, and will use those to help students from Puerto Rico. And Boston Public Schools is coordinating across the district to identify open seats in classrooms and, like it did after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, is making plans to welcome transfer students in need.

“Our priority is still to keep students in school where they can learn,” wrote the New York City Department of Education. “Being in the classroom keeps children safe and offers them stability during uncertain times. In addition, going to school every day connects students with a community that cares for and protects them.”

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Schools are also finding other ways to help those affected by Hurricane Maria. Buffalo School District in New York has partnered with a local non-profit, The Teacher’s Desk, to provide students from Puerto Rico with backpacks filled with school supplies. In Alpharetta, Ga.,, Alpharetta High School collected cases of bottled water to send to Puerto Rico. Comsewogue High School in Long Island, N.Y., is collecting water, canned foods, and cereal in its auditorium and is reaching out to the community to find a way to ship to Puerto Rico as quickly as possible. In the Consolidated School District of New Britain Public in Connecticut, students in the district’s 17 schools are being challenged to creatively fundraise as much money as possible for Puerto Rico.

As school districts open their doors to displaced students and families, parents and other community members will likely have questions—both about how to help, and what the changes might mean for students already enrolled. For these reasons, communication between the district and the home is critical.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in September, administrators at Spring ISD in Texas used an online portal on the district’s website to organize relief efforts and allow affected community members to apply for recovery grants.

“Schools are a first step toward the return to normalcy, and they’re a part of the recovery process,” said Sylvia Wood, chief communications officer for Spring ISD, at the time. “Getting the kids back in the classroom and learning, and establishing that routine every day is going to help a lot of families.”

 Is your district considering helping students from Puerto Rico or other areas affected by the storms? Tell us how in the comments.