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In Puerto Rico, frustrated parents wonder when schools will reopen. It may be a while

Tim Johnson, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Weather News

PATILLAS, Puerto Rico -- It seems like an eternity since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and parents are getting a touch grumpy dealing with the lines to buy water and gasoline and facing constant blackouts, as youngsters bounce off the walls with boredom.

"They start having fights at home. They get rowdy," said Luis Ortiz Correa, an auto body worker and father of four. "They don't have things to entertain themselves."

One of the casualties of Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 monster that lashed the island Sept. 20, are the island's schools. Hundreds of schools are shut, and many parents in smaller interior cities and towns have no clue when they may reopen.

Many assume that schools will remain shut for months. Some families hope to send their school-aged children to the mainland to live with relatives and attend school there. School districts across the United States are bracing for an influx of Puerto Rican students.

For 16-year-old Angel Amaro, the hurricane brought multiple tragedies.

"My family and I live in a wooden house, and it was totally destroyed," the 10th-grader said, standing next to his bicycle in Maunabo, along Puerto Rico's southeastern coast. "I lost my clothes. I lost my bed. I lost everything."

Angel and his 15-year-old sister, Yamaris, held out hope that they may travel to Oklahoma to stay with a relative and enter a school there. Other relatives live in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

"We don't know if we'll lose the whole (school) year," he said.

In the town of Yabucoa, work crews used heavy machinery Sunday to drag broken trees off roads and remove fallen power lines. Traffic moved slowly. Huge lines snaked out of gas stations. Motorists and pedestrians carrying jerry cans waited to fill up.

The two-story local high school served briefly as a shelter during the hurricane and its aftermath. A broken power pole partially blocked the main entrance, and some of the hurricane shutters on windows were peeled away. A vending machine lay on its side, toppled over.

One of its students, Leonardo Rivera, 17, a senior, voiced angst about how he would complete his final year of high school and get to university.

"We're going to get really behind," he said. "It's not good. It's frustrating."

He and his 16-year-old sister, Gabriela, live in a sturdy concrete home that suffered little damage. Their mother, Wanda Alvarez de Jesus, is a member of the Yabucoa municipal council. Their fate is far better than that of many families.

They have a generator that they turn on for periods throughout the day and night, four hours on, four hours off, to power a refrigerator and some lights.

But the two spoke of cabin fever and the disruption of their lives.

"You get used to a routine, and with something like this it changes drastically," Leonardo said.

Gabriela fidgeted with her smart phone. "There's no 3G," she said. No signal meant no reception, no texts to friends, no fun. "We're suffering, it's true."

As he waited to fill a jerry can at a local gas station, a government employee who works for Medicare, Humberto Piovanetti, said he had already paid for the placement of his 10-year-old daughter, Angelisse, in a private school.

"The school is completely destroyed. We don't know when it will reopen," Piovanetti said.

With no phone service, no electricity other than generators, and daily struggles to buy food, Piovanetti said he had little news of how his family would endure the coming weeks and months.

Another man in line, Juan J. Delgado, interjected. "The ATMs, they are out of service. I have $40 but I don't know how long it will last ... . If they open the banks, that will be a relief."

In mountainous Aguas Buenas south of San Juan, Angel Perez Bernard said he and his wife were debating what they should do with 7-year-old Andrea and 12-year-old Diego.

"Schools are going to be shut a long time," Perez said. "We're thinking of sending the little ones to Indiana. We have relatives there."

"It depends on the air tickets. They've gotten very expensive," said his wife, Glenda Fontanez Aponte.

School districts across the eastern United States -- ranging from Miami-Dade and central Florida to New York City and Boston -- are expecting an influx of Puerto Rican students as a result of Hurricane Maria. Some districts say they have been in touch with Puerto Rico's education secretary, Julia Keleher, over what to expect.

Keleher announced over the weekend that a scattering of 22 schools across the country would open as soon as Monday to serve as community centers, without formal classes. All 22 have running water, she said, although apparently no electricity.

At home in Aguas Buenas, Perez had not heard that news, only that education authorities were advising parents to "start giving lessons to their kids at home so they don't fall behind." He scoffed at that. Struggles to get water to bathe, and coping with the lack of electricity, take all the couple's energies.

"The problem isn't just the electricity. It's how to regain access to the cellular signal, get food and gasoline," Fontanez said. Looking toward her children, she added: "They are not going to sit here and do homework."

Her young son broke into the conversation. "There's chaos with the gasoline," he said, speaking in English that he polished during a stay in the mainland when he was younger.

The couple pondered about the pros and cons of sending their kids away to relatives on the mainland.

"As my neighbor says, it's easier to find food for two people rather than four," the mother said. But when asked how long she might send her children away for, she looked pained.

"I don't think that I could stand having them away for a whole year."

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