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Puerto Rico Re-Opens Some Schools, Considers How To Make Up Classes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today students in some parts of Puerto Rico return to school. Public schools have been closed since Hurricane Maria hit more than a month ago leaving most of the island without power. NPR's Adrian Florido has been visiting some of the schools in Puerto Rico. He joins us from San Juan. Hi, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what have you seen the last few days?

FLORIDO: So we visited a few different schools across the island, and I mean, in some places, the schools have been heavily damaged and in other places they haven't been, right? So we've visited, you know, one school where the neighborhood had flooded and water had essentially risen to the second story of the school. So everything on the first floor was destroyed - desks, books. I mean, you know, some technology, everything. Other schools, you've seen trees toppled down onto classrooms and create, you know, causing huge sort of structural problems.

And then, you know, I've been to other schools where damage was minimal. You had maybe one or two classrooms with damage and a little bit of, sort of, like, a roof torn off or something at one small portion of the school but the rest of the school looks fine. And teachers have just been sort of out since the storm trying to get schools ready for kids to return, whenever they get the green light to do that.

INSKEEP: And I guess today is when we find the effects of that random damage, right? Are the schools that are less damaged the ones that would open today?

FLORIDO: Yeah, that's right. So schools today are opening - some schools are opening in San Juan, the capital, which is here kind of on the eastern portion of the island, and in Mayaguez, which is on the far western portion of the island. What's happening is that the Department of Education is sending inspectors out to every single school - there are 1,100 across the island - to essentially ensure that the structural integrity of the schools is strong, that schools are safe to return to, and that they have basic things like water and access to power, whether they're generators or because they're reconnected to the electrical grid. And so before schools can open they have to get that green light from these engineers. This is obviously a big task. It's going to take a long time because there are so many schools.

INSKEEP: And we've got some tape here from the education secretary there, Julia Keleher. Let's give a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIA KELEHER: We're planning on adjusting at two regions every week. So that would put us in about the second week of November to have everybody back online.

INSKEEP: Two regions there every week? That means a little bit at a time?

FLORIDO: Yeah, that's right. The schools are essentially divided. The Department of Education divides the schools into seven geographic regions that cover the entire island. So it's starting these inspections in the least-affected portions of the island, the ones that sustained the least amount of damage. And the regions of the island that had the most damage will not get inspected until later on next month, and so it could be a while before those kids do get back to school.

INSKEEP: Are parents who in most cases would still be without power getting proper communications about what's going on with the schools?

FLORIDO: Some are and some aren't. That's been one of the big challenges, is that communication is so difficult because a lot of people still have no cell service. Most people have no electricity. So, you know, there is some confusion around when kids are supposed to return to school. We were at a school yesterday and, you know, the teachers were there hoping that they would have got - they would get the green light, that an inspector would show up, and parents were showing up with their kids in uniform hoping classes were starting. The teachers were ready for school to begin, but because this happens to be in one of the most - the school happened to be in one of the most affected regions of the island, they won't be getting inspectors for a while. And this has been kind of frustrating for teachers. Eliezer Gonzalez was a teacher I spoke with, and listen to what he had to say.

ELIEZER GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: What he's saying is that, you know, they don't want to go against the secretary of education's sort of roles that they not return before they get the green light, but they're just really ready to get started again.

INSKEEP: OK. Adrian, thanks very much.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Adrian Florido in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.