• The Star Staff

Education chief-designate sets March 3 for ‘flexible’ on-site class resumption

Aims for ‘return to normal’ school year in August

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Amid concerns about the prudent reopening of schools in Puerto Rico during the coronavirus pandemic, designated Education Secretary Elba Aponte Santos said Monday that some on-site classes might resume on March 3.

During a press conference at La Fortaleza, Aponte Santos said the agency has been working since Jan. 4 to establish an action plan to “ensure an orderly and safe return to schools” in a phased manner.

“We’re in the phase where we are informing school directors, town mayors to join forces and conduct this reopening responsibly,” the designated Education chief said. “As a mother and educator, I have the priority and the commitment that [the reopening] will be conducted [in an orderly and safe way].”

Meanwhile, Aponte Santos said, the department will begin orientation for students through educational videos and will encourage school directors to inform parents on the reopening process.

“This will be a flexible process,” she said, noting that parents will have the option of sending their children to on-site classes or carrying on virtually.

“If we can open five schools and those are the ones that [resume in-person classes], that’s what we’re going to do,” Aponte Santos said. “If we can raise the expectation and open 10, 20 or 30 schools, that’s what we’re going to open, but we have to do something for our children.”

“This will be a step toward moving with haste into a reopening phase and to have the opening in August to return to normal,” she added.

As for how many schools may be able to reopen for in-person classes, Aponte Santos said 172 schools are “highly potential” for reopening. She said those are schools that appear to be in proper structural condition and to possess the resources for conducting coronavirus protocols.

However, such numbers are still under evaluation. The Education secretary said inspectors must confirm if the schools fulfill the requirements from two “checklists” that the department has created, along with epidemiologists from the island Health Department using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If they don’t fulfill the requirements, we won’t authorize them to reopen because I have to protect children’s well being; I have to safeguard employees’ well being,” Aponte Santos said. “That is why we are working hand in hand. Epidemiologists are the experts [on public health matters], while on structural issues, we count on the experts from OMEP [the Spanish acronym for the Public Buildings Management Office] and the Public Buildings Authority.”

Regarding claims that the Puerto Rico Teachers Association and its local union released Sunday to address complaints such as inefficiencies in the current system for recording teacher attendance, improvements in educators’ base salary and the department’s failure to reveal a contingency plan to teachers, Aponte Santos told the Star that she ordered agency officers to develop a list to pay retroactive salaries to both temporary and career teachers before June and to ensure that the new attendance system will have the proper tools to address concerns such as undue deductions.

“In terms of conversations we have had on the reopening plan, I must say that it is due to them that we have a safety and health committee, but I will focus on and I will consider as a prevention mechanism establishing minutes at the meetings we have,” the Education secretary-designate said. “With that, we would have certified information on what was said and what was not.”