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Some Puerto Rican schools still sheltering hundreds of displaced people as other schools reopen

By staff

Interview with Noelanie Fuentes, vice-president of the FMPR local in Rio Grande

This is an interview done on Oct. 22 with Noelanie Fuentes, vice president of the Rio Grande Local of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation and a social studies teacher at Liberata Iraldo Middle School. Her school is one of many across Puerto Rico that is still being used as a shelter for people whose homes were destroyed in the hurricane. Here she discusses the work teachers have been doing to support families living in their school, and her perspective on reopening schools while many in Puerto Rico are still living in shelters, including shelters at schools, or have no electricity or water. Interview and translation from Spanish by Brad Sigal. Fight Back!: Let's start with who you are and what you do here.

Noelanie Fuentes: Good afternoon. My name is Noelani Fuentes Cardona. I’m a middle school social studies teacher. We’re here at the school where I’ve been working for three years, the Liberata Iraldo middle school. In the time since Hurricane Maria passed, the school is serving as a shelter for all the people that lost their homes in the town of Rio Grande. It’s the central shelter for the town of Rio Grande.

Fight Back!: So the people that are here have been living here since September?

Fuentes: Yes, since September, since a few days after Hurricane Maria passed. They’ve now been living here approximately a month in our classrooms that have been converted into their homes. And here we’re struggling day-by-day.

Fight Back!: So you’re saying that your classroom has a family living in it?

Fuentes: It has a large, extended family living in it. This week we were collecting donations for all the people sheltered here because they have needs, basic hygiene needs, needs for kids’ clothes and toys, so us teachers took on the task to support these families, support the community and other schools. We collected as many donations as we could in the week and brought them the donations. They won’t have all that we have but at least they’ll feel a little bit of stability in this space they have which is already quite difficult.

Fight Back!: And now the Department of Education is announcing that they’re going to reopen many schools. What’s going to happen at your school?

Fuentes: Well, that’s a big question that all teachers have, and that we have specifically at the Liberata Iraldo school. Because the Department of Education has put out some memos but none of them specify what’s going to happen with the schools that are serving as shelters. All the memos are very general, addressing the level of all the schools. But this is a school where approximately 120 people are living. It’s understood, or it has been said, that they’ll be relocated to a closed factory. A factory where as of now there are no dividers, it’s a space where everyone would be out in the open. They’re in the process of creating divided sections and separated bathrooms. How long will that take? It’s unknown. So due to that, as long as they haven’t finished preparing this factory to relocate the people who have taken refuge in the school, we are meeting here in the school lobby Monday through Friday from 8:00 to 12:00, waiting for direction from the education secretary.

Fight Back!: Anything else you’d like to add?

Fuentes: Yes. People have the need to return to normalcy or something approximating that. But you also have to think about these students, this generation, who are going through a process they’re not used to. They’ve never lived through this. To demand starting their classes, to demand that they comply with an extended schedule of 8:00 to 3:00, which the secretary of the Department of Education had to change at the last minute to 8:00 to 12:00, I understand that’s a lot.

As teachers we want to work and we want to attend to our students. But not in a situation where there’s no water in many communities, where there’s no electricity. Many people say, “why can’t you teach classes that way?” Well, sure, fantastic! You walk into a classroom with a 105-degree temperature with 30 students in a classroom. 30 students who very likely didn’t sleep well the night before because of the heat, who didn’t sleep well because of their parents’ worries, who didn’t sleep well because they didn’t eat well because if you go now to the supermarket the shelves are empty. You have to stand in line for everything, to withdraw money, to buy things. And these are worries that we as adults often can’t even handle.

Imagine children, imagine young people, many of whom are in a transition period which is much more difficult for them. I understand that things that are elective shouldn’t be imposed above emotional wellbeing. You have to work on it all, but it shouldn’t be a situation where to avoid not completing a fixed number of hours [as set by Department of Education policy for hours required in the classroom for a school year], they say we have to start classes right away. It needs to be done wisely and in a humanitarian way.

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