Education chief looks beyond band-aids for schools’ infrastructure woes

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

With a new school year scheduled to begin in the next 30 days and the island government hoping to reestablish in-person instruction, Acting Education Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés said Thursday the priority remains resolving the infrastructure issues that have prevailed since the earthquakes in southern Puerto Rico that began on Dec. 28, 2019.

Ramos Parés told the STAR that such a priority entails establishing a maintenance plan for the schools in order to give continuity to the work whose aim is for students to “meet back with their teachers and join in as part of the school community.”

“This year we don’t want to patch up the infrastructure problems in our schools with paint and a water hose, which is what is typically done,” the acting secretary said in an exclusive interview. “There is work in progress that will be finished by August, there is work that will be starting in August, and, specifically, during the year we will be carrying out work that will put our schools in a better condition for the future.”

“We have looked into it, and soon we will be announcing the schools that we will be opening,” he said. “The outlook is quite good; we are talking about a significant number of schools that will be able to open and receive their students.”

Nevertheless, he said, a number of schools continue to face serious infrastructure problems and will not be able to open.

Therefore, the acting secretary said, students from affected school communities will transfer temporarily to “other campuses and infrastructure to be able to serve them and give them the maximum amount of school time.”

“Dad and Mom, there are going to be in-person services, there is going to be a variety of ways that those services are going to be provided per school and the variable is what kind of shape the infrastructure of the school is in; but there are going to be [in-person classes],” he said. “This means that we all have to prepare with the minimum necessary for us to be able to attend school, in some form or another.”

When asked by the STAR, Ramos Parés said there will be short-column schools that will be open for in-person instruction “that do not represent an immediate risk to the safety of our resources and students.”

“Once the construction time is scheduled, we would be mobilizing the campus to another campus or structure in order to address the infrastructure challenge once and for all, and they will be returning to the campus,” the acting secretary said. “They are works that can last between 30, 60 and, maybe 75 days, which is the information that AFI [the Spanish initials for the Infrastructure Financing Authority] has.”

“The reality is that there have been bidding and contracting challenges, labor, and materials challenges, the contractors have requested additional time to be ready to perform these works,” Ramos Parés added. “We don’t want to waste the opportunity or the funds allocated, for a process that is ongoing, so we know that the house is going to be under remodeling while we are going to be living in it.”

While assuring that there will be face-to-face instructional time for students, Ramos Parés told the STAR that the agency does not rule out the incorporation of distance education during the new school year.

“There will be a reduction [of distance education resources] as the weeks and months go by, and as the schools that are in the process of construction, or to address the issue of short columns, are being delivered,” he said after pointing out that some 684 schools with short columns have already been evaluated by engineers.

As for the COVID-19 pandemic, in which government officials continue to remain wary of the outbreaks caused by the Delta variant, Ramos Parés told the newspaper that “face masks will remain mandatory despite CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations.”

“The call to vaccinate against the coronavirus has received a response from our students, which is great news,” he said. “However, as some other members of our community do not qualify yet for the vaccine, we urge them to keep watch of the virus’ behavior and to seek protection against it.”

Ramos Parés noted that opening schools last month for in-person summer classes has allowed the Education Department to review challenges to solving environmental issues such as ventilation in advance.

“We have to, along with the Department of Health officials and other environmental advisers, seek answers on how, when, and under what conditions we can use air conditioners in classrooms so students can be more comfortable,” he said. “Now, this month has allowed us to see great responses as community members continue to respond according to the COVID-19 protocols established earlier this year and test themselves to detect any infection.”

Nevertheless, Ramos Parés said the protocols will face amendments as the Department of Health will enforce random COVID-19 testing at schools, and will install temporary laboratories to provide free tests and address the matter of potential infections swiftly.

Regarding teacher recruitment, Ramos Parés said that even though the department can’t guarantee having all the educators it needs before the school year begins, “a great number of them will be there” as the agency has begun to seek new instructors.

“When I talk about not guaranteeing the number, it is because there is always turnover,” he said. “Some turn over because they find better job opportunities before school begins or have a sudden change of plans.”

The acting secretary said the department has begun recruiting specialty teachers and “our calls [for candidates] around our seven regions were filled with responses.”

“This is a great advancement,” he said. “We are talking about recruiting 4,200 teachers by August; the goal is to have all the resources in place by August 5 so that all teachers can benefit from this professional development focused on the COVID-19 pandemic in light of the return to our classrooms.”

Ramos Parés said new recruits will review the coronavirus protocols and guidelines established by the Department of Health in order for them to respond to any emergency without improvising.

As for educational lapses caused by the pandemic, the Education chief told the STAR that this issue is also a priority in the agency’s summer work schedule, which is expected to conclude Aug. 13 “with parent-teacher meetings at different schools across the island.”

Regarding the Special Education program, Ramos Parés said the department has begun hiring more than 3,000 service assistants.

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