SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico public and private schools that comply with Health Department guidelines can return to in-person classes beginning March 1, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced Monday.
"There is no time to lose. Our children and youth have had to wait too long to return to their schools," said the island's leader at a virtual news conference.
The reopening will be "gradual and partial," said the governor, with not all schools returning into session immediately. The order comes days after Pierluisi signed an emergency declaration to expedite preparations to begin in-person classes at the island's public schools and almost a year since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the American territory.
The executive order requires schools to comply with Department of Health guidelines announced last Friday by acting Health Secretary Carlos Mellado. Schools must be registered in the "BioPortal," a web-based application used by laboratories and hospitals to report COVID-19 cases to the health agency. The health department will visit and inspect the schools that receive a preliminary authorization to open, certifying those who meet standards and keeping shut those that do not comply.
About $20 million in funds will help transportation carriers prepare to take more than 100,000 students to school. Another $8 million will help subsidize internet connectivity and equipment for remote learning purposes, as well as to strengthen courses offered over the television.
Secretary of Education Elba Aponte will share Thursday which and how many public schools will initially reopen of the 172 deemed "potentially apt."
Pierluisi said that the return to in-person classes will be voluntary, although recommended.
But the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, a professional organization and teachers union with around 17,000 members, said in a press release that while the Department of Health protocols were "very complete," they did not "adjust to the reality of the school communities."
"Certainly, the protocol leaves you with many doubts because we know that each school community is a world and we are just days away from the opening date," said Victor Bonilla, the group's president.
The union leader, along with other organized labor leaders, legislators, teachers, parents and former secretaries of education have said they do not believe the Puerto Rico Department of Education is ready to reopen schools. Many believe a more realistic start date is August, which coincides with the beginning of the new school year on the island.
Pierluisi mentioned President Joe Biden's push to reopen schools in the first 100 days and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics in pushing for the reopening.
As of Feb. 22, Puerto Rico has had more than 91,000 confirmed cases and close to 2,000 deaths. Cases of the coronavirus have declined in the island of 3.2 million in the last two weeks, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker.
Puerto Rico's public education system was already struggling before the pandemic. The system of 858 schools serves a student population where the majority live under the poverty level. In the 2019-20 school year, the public high school dropout rate was almost 15%, according to the Department of Education, although experts say that number is likely much higher. Over 103,000 students have disabilities that require special education services. And hundreds of schools have shuttered as the island's population declines, according to a Hunter College study.
The island has also been hit by a series of natural disasters that have made it difficult to provide an education to the island's children. In 2017, Hurricane Maria destroyed dozens of school buildings and interrupted classes for weeks. A series of earthquakes that began shaking southern Puerto Rico in late December 2019 delayed the beginning of the 2020 spring semester across the island and left five towns in the region without fully functioning schools, according to the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism. The quakes also highlighted structural weaknesses in school buildings, prompting fears for children's well-being in light of unpredictable seismic activity.(c)2021 Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.