Governor asks Education Dept. to prepare schools for possible return to in-person classes in March

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

With the Puerto Rico Education Department lacking detailed information on the current status of schools and the island still facing the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi on Monday asked Education Secretary Elba Aponte Santos to do everything in her power to pave the way for students in the public education system to return to in-person classes as early as March.

During a press conference held after Pierluisi met with his designated cabinet members to address governance issues such as disaster recovery, the fight against the coronavirus and the next fiscal year’s budget plan to be submitted to the Financial Oversight and Management Board, the governor said clear protocols and coherent plans were needed “as we want to prepare and get people used to the idea that those schools will reopen responsibly and gradually.”

“It’s not that this is the deadline because, if infections continue, and the health system is compromised, perhaps not even at the beginning of March will we be able to begin [in-person classes], but I want there to be no excuses here so that by the beginning of March we can reopen these facilities,” Pierluisi said. “There might be a pandemic, but we can’t be paralyzed.”

The governor said the expected objectives for reopening schools properly depend on when “both teachers and non-academic personnel get properly vaccinated and … schools are in the proper condition to receive students with every safety measure that needs to be enforced.”

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico National Guard Adj. Gen. José Juan Reyes said it was expected that around 40,000 Education Department employees would be vaccinated.

“The department has their in-house nursing personnel; therefore, what we are following through on is to qualify them through the Health Department as vaccine administrators so they become capable of administering vaccines,” Reyes said, adding that current and future vaccinations would be available for that sector once the appropriate phase in the inoculation schedule begins.

As for private schools and universities being included in the process, Pierluisi said “when we talk about vaccinating teachers and staff who work in schools, I am including those who work in private schools because we must meet the needs of all students, wherever they are studying.”

As for the status of the physical infrastructure of island schools, Aponte Santos said that currently 140 out of 855 campuses have reported damages and have been classified as “partially unsuitable” or “unsuitable” for reopening.

In addition, she said she will be sending each campus a “checklist” in order to gather real-time information. She added that she was expecting to meet today with mayors to gain insight into schools in their municipalities.

“Unfortunately, … work on the damage caused by the earthquakes [in early 2020] has not started,” the designated Education secretary said. “But we want to direct the work in a planned way and in a manner that takes access to the educational environment into account.”

When the STAR asked for the current status of the distribution of electronic devices to students so that they can enroll in their virtual classes, Aponte Santos said she was informed that only 10% of students have yet to receive their devices, and tools have been purchased for around 164,000 students.

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