Healing Puerto Rico’s Schools

On September 20th, 2017 Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico as a high-end Category 4 hurricane.  While Puerto Rico has a long history with tropical storms, none of these were like Hurricane Maria.  This was the most intense storm to make landfall in the Caribbean island since the San Ciprian Hurricane of 1932, which was also a Category 4.

The path of destruction and devastation left behind is unprecedented.  Puerto Ricans are grappling with a sense of loss and displacement as they try to meet basic needs such as shelter, food, and water.  Progress has been slow.  As of October 23, 2017, at least 27% of Puerto Ricans have no water and 82% have no power.

At the center of this tragedy are 345,000 public school students who have been out of school for more than a month.   This past week, Education officials launched a gradual reopening of 119 schools in the San Juan and Mayaguez regions.  However, a return to any sense of normalcy is an unrealistic expectation.  At least 70% of the 1,100 schools in the system are too badly damaged to reopen.   In addition, an estimated 190 schools are being used as community centers, shelters, and relief centers.

The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that the island does not have adequate school based clinicians to address the traumatic needs of students.  Puerto Rico has less than 50 licensed school psychologists on staff.  This represents a 0.05% of the actual number that should be providing services according to Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Law 170 of August 12 2000 .  This law formally established the position of school psychologist and requires a minimum of 5 school psychologists for each of the 7 educational regions.  Presently, there is discussion on a new bill that would require 10 school psychologists for each educational region.

In the meantime, educators must find ways to create a safe-haven and a support system for students who are returning to school.  Many students will be dealing with feelings of anxiety, depression, and the trauma of things experienced during the storm.  Students have experienced loss of home and personal belongings, hunger, and abandonment from family members moving to the mainland.

While there is no easy solution to this complex problem, here are five key considerations for teachers, administrators, and support staff:

  • Creating a safe and nurturing environment should be the number one priority. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network  indicates that “danger and safety are core concerns in the life of children.”   Children on the island have been deeply impacted by  recent events.  They have witnessed tragedy and despair and now need a safe place to share their feelings.  Making sure that they feel safe and protected in their schools and classrooms should be the primary concern.
  • Curriculum takes a back seat.  Children who are hungry, feel insecure, and have experienced trauma cannot focus on learning.   Administrators and educational leaders should give teachers the flexibility to modify instructional objectives and pacing guides to make room for social-emotional goals and activities.  A great resource is the Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators which provides suggestions on how to support children experiencing trauma in the classroom.
  • A comprehensive therapeutic support system should be in place for the long haul.  Social workers, school psychologists, administrators, teachers, and parents must come together as a united front to determine the best approach for their school community and specifically, for individual students.  This support system must be in a place for an indefinite amount of time and will require the financial support of the Department of Education.  Critical vacancies must be filled.  Alternate methods of providing therapeutic interventions should be explored including partnering with private and nonprofit agencies.
  • The social-emotional needs of teachers must be addressed.  Teachers cannot offer support and nurture students if they are also dealing with trauma.   Many teachers are experiencing feelings of loss, displacement, and uncertainty as they return to the classroom.   In their book Fostering Resilient Learners Kristin Souers and Pete Hall stress the importance of self-care.  They argue that, “It’s crucial… that teachers not brush aside self-care as an unnecessary luxury; on the contrary, taking care of ourselves is what enables us to take care of our students.”   Each school should strive to create an environment that recognizes these needs and puts the health and wellness of teachers and students at the center of a recovery plan.
  • Finally, and most importantly,  we need to instill feelings of hope for the future.  Renowned child trauma expert, Bruce Perry writes that “Resilience cannot exist without hope. It is the capacity to be hopeful that carries us through challenges, disappointments, loss, and traumatic stress.”   Teachers and support staff can provide healthy relationships for students built on trust and honesty.  These can in turn serve as a mechanism to instill hope in the midst of adversity and help heal the school community.