U.S. School Districts Brace for Influx of Displaced Puerto Rican Children

Children fill up bottles with water at a water distribution point, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Loiza, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. Federal aid is racing to stem a growing humanitarian crisis in towns left without fresh water, fuel, electricity or phone service by the hurricane. (AP …
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

As U.S. citizens Puerto Rican children can enroll in public schools and many are doing so following Hurricane Maria’s devastating strike on the island last month.

One of those school districts is in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where 80 percent of the 5,300 schoolchildren are from the island or are of Puerto Rican descent, the San Juan Daily Star reported on Tuesday.

The district there is asking parents to let the school district know as soon as possible if they plan to take in any school-age relatives.

At the top of the list of concerns is the emotional well-being of students, not only for newcomers but also children whose relatives are affected or whose homes could suddenly become crowded with extended family.

“It wasn’t only going through the hurricane and listening to horrific winds and thinking there won’t be a tomorrow,” said Ileana Cintron, chief of family and community engagement for Holyoke schools. “The aftermath of scarcity, and people being very anxious about where they will find food, that definitely has an impact on children.”

As the hurricane approached the U.S. territory, Joseenid Martin Gregory put her sons Eliot Saez Martin, 9, and his brother, Elionet, 5, on a plane to join their grandfather in Connecticut where she felt they would be safe, according to the Star.

The boys’ grandfather, Jose Martin, found no way to reach his daughter so he made arrangements to keep the boys permanently and enrolled them at the local elementary school.

“We didn’t think the hurricane was going to be catastrophic,” Martin said. “With the situation Puerto Rico is in now, it’s difficult.”

“I thank God that the children are here,” Martin said. “They’re in school. They have food.”

The boys represent what is expected to be a trend of Puerto Rican children coming to the United States to go to school as the island recovers and rebuilds.

And these children will also bring new challenges to the U.S. schools, including providing help for children with limited English skills or who are behind academically.

School districts up and down the East Coast are accustomed to receiving new families from the island.

More than 450,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland over the last decade amid the territory’s economic recession. After the island government announced last spring that it would close 179 public schools, some already were expecting island students to arrive in bigger num- bers this fall.

“The unfortunate occurrence of Hurricane Maria has expedited those plans,” said Khalid Mumin, school superintendent in Reading, Pennsylvania, where plans include parent outreach assistants at each school.

U.S. federal law calls for displaced children to be enrolled in public schools, including those affected by natural disasters.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he expects hundreds, and possibly thousands of new students to enroll in public schools once commercial flights are back on schedule, the Star reported.

Carvalho has reportedly been communicating with Puerto Rico’s education secretary, Julia Keleher, on how to best accommodate the students, including providing transportation to and from school.

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