PUERTO RICO – As some public schools begin to reopen more than a month after Hurricane Maria plowed across Puerto Rico, Ezequiel Torres Rivas’ relatives continue to call a high school classroom in the town of Corazal home.
His grandmother, Margarita Cosme Fuentes, 52, lives in the school-turned-shelter southwest of San Juan, along with other family members and friends. They sleep on cots in a brightly-painted classroom, where decorations still adorn the walls and a large plastic bucket surrounded by water jugs serve as the kitchen sink.
Classes begin Tuesday in regions on opposite ends of the island, in San Juan and Mayaguez, according to education officials.
But Ezequiel, 15, has no idea when he’ll return to school.
“When school starts, the first thing I’m going to do is hug my friends,” he said, standing outside the remains of his family’s home in Corazal .
“I saw one of them and his home was destroyed. It collapsed like this one. He was happy to see me, then he started to cry.”
‘Starting from scratch’
For some of the US territory’s 345,000 public school students, the resumption of classes next week — after more than a month away — could bring a small measure of normalcy.
Roughly 3 million Puerto Ricans, or more than 80% of the island’s residents, have no power. About a third of households are without reliable drinking water.
Of the more than 1,100 public schools on the island, dozens were badly damaged, hundreds are serving as community centers and more than 70 others are used to shelter families who lost their homes.
In Corazal, drama teacher and actress Roxanna Miranda stood outside the small schoolhouse where she has taught for 10 years. A stack of water-logged books, notebooks, plays, costumes and make-up kits were piled high in one corner. It’s unclear when schools in the storm-ravaged region will reopen.
“We are starting from scratch,” she said. “We will receive these young people with joy. We will receive them with enthusiasm. We will thank God for being alive, knowing that any storm will only serve to purify us. We are starting anew.”
Some schools to open October 30
Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher this week said she wanted to resume classes for all as soon as possible but had to ensure the safety of students and teachers and that needed repairs were made.
“Schools are open as community centers around the island,” she said in a video posted on the education department Facebook page. “This allows families to return to work and assures our children and members of school communities have access to a warn meal.”
She said some schools in Bayamon, in the northern coastal valley, and in the southern city of Ponce are expected to reopen on October 30.
“Once we are certain that our students are safe,” she said, “we will continue to open schools.”
Keleher said the US Army Corp of Engineers has been evaluating school buildings. In addition, the education department has been consulting the teachers’ union about recovering lost classroom time as well as state education officials in the US mainland about ensuring a smooth transition for students whose families have left the island.
‘They will … use the arts to heal’
In Corazal, clothes hang out to dry from the side of the local high school. Older people pass the time on small wooden chair desks. Ezequiel’s grandmother sweeps the floor of classroom 204 like she used to in her own living room.
“One day we were in a stable place, which we called our own,” she said. “Now we’re here with nothing.”
Still coping with the loss of his family’s home and most of his meager possessions, Ezequiel said he looked forward to returning to school.
“That’s where I saw all my friends, where I talked to them,” he said. “Now we don’t know when classes will start.”
Still, the possibility that the school year could be extended past June to make up for lost time did not appeal to the teenager.
“If classes don’t start, we won’t have a summer,” he said. “Summer is a blessing. We go to the beaches, to the river.”
Miranda, the drama teacher, is also ready for school.
“I have wonderful and creative students,” she said. “They will lift up our drama class and use the arts to heal us.”