Scott Repeats Call for Hearings to Examine Troubling State of Education in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands One Year After Hurricane Maria
WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Ranking Member Bobby Scott (VA-03), the top Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, sent a second letter to Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (NC-05) requesting hearings before the full Committee to examine the troubling state of education in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The U.S. Virgin Islands Board of Education reported a drop of nearly 4,000 students enrolled in schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, while Puerto Rico’s Department of Education closed 265 schools last summer.
“Compounding the trauma and anxiety are hastily implemented reforms and school closures without community input from citizens relying on schools as anchor institutions for a return to stability,” Ranking Member Scott wrote. “With recovery far from over, Members of the Committee and the American public should have the opportunity to hear directly about the federal government’s ongoing efforts to address the educational needs of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
The letter to Chairwoman Foxx, which comes on the one-year anniversary of the devastating storm, follows up on a previous request for a hearings sent by Ranking Member Scott in November of last year.
The full text of the letter is available here and below.
Dear Chairwoman Foxx,
Today marks one full year since the catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I write to you, again, to request that the Committee on Education and the Workforce hold a hearing with officials from the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Management and Budget to examine whether the federal response afforded the Territories the resources and flexibility needed to reopen and resume operations in public schools and institutions of higher education.
The U.S. Virgin Islands Board of Education reported that post-hurricane school enrollment dropped by nearly 4,000 students. Of 32 schools in the territory, 10 closed. At least eight schools were condemned due to irreparable damage. As a result, many schools had to operate on double session schedules so that students could at least receive 180 days of instruction. However, the sessions did not allow students to receive the required 1,080 hours of instruction. To end double sessions by this fall’s back to school season, Governor Kenneth Mapp announced a plan for temporary repairs to most schools and modular unit installation to demolished school campuses. Temporary repairs prioritized replacing ceiling and floor tiles, sanitization, and safe treatments for mold.
Puerto Rico also continues to deal with serious trauma. Recently, the government finally acknowledged that the initial count of 64 lost lives was grossly inaccurate. In fact, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives due to Hurricane Maria, significantly more than Hurricane Katrina’s estimate. Sadly, George Washington University researchers – the team tasked with the official recount – anticipate that a second analysis will reveal a higher mortality count. Although electricity has been restored, the power grid remains fragile and officials acknowledge that the island is not prepared for the current hurricane season. Given the circumstances, a joint study by Puerto Rico’s Department of Education (PRDOE) and the Medical University of South Carolina found that roughly one in every 10 students is exhibiting symptoms of trauma at school.
Compounding the trauma and anxiety are hastily implemented reforms and school closures without community input from citizens relying on schools as anchor institutions for a return to stability. Last summer, shortly before Hurricane Maria, the PRDOE closed 165 out of 1,278 schools due to a decline in student enrollment. This summer, 265 more were summarily closed before the start of the 2018-2019 school year – effectively cutting one-third of public school options from the island within a year. Families only learned of those closings with the rest of the public from the news media.
The first day back to school in Puerto Rico was nothing short of chaotic. Many students returned to temporary classrooms on which the island has spent millions in FEMA aid. Educators continued to wait for replacement books, computers, and repairs in classrooms they could not occupy despite overcrowding. Hundreds of displaced teachers awaited school reassignments. At least one school held a teacher walk-out to protest a new law’s expansion of charter schools and the changes to the education system. As of August 17, 2018, Puerto Rico had not spent any of its $589 million funding set aside specifically for school recovery while PRDOE claims the process is just slow. This month, PRDOE announced that it will spend less than 10 percent of the funds on hiring school nurses to address trauma and nutrition. Although schools have been in session for over a month, it is still unclear how or when the rest of the funds will be spent to meet the needs of students and teachers.
With recovery far from over, Members of the Committee and the American public should have the opportunity to hear directly about the federal government’s ongoing efforts to address the educational needs of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I look forward to your support for a hearing that helps us to learn about the Administration’s effort to bring stability to the impacted Territories, specifically as it relates to prioritizing recovery efforts to ensure that students, teachers, and families have the resources necessary to live and learn safely in their communities.
Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03), ranking member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce