Governor files executive order to allow school reopenings starting March 1

Schools must fulfill COVID-19 safety requirements from Health Dept. protocol

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia announced Executive Order (EO) 2021-17 on Monday, which allows both public and private schools to reopen partially starting March 1 if they meet regulations established by the island Health Department to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Among the measures included in the decree, EO 2020-17 establishes that classes are not required to begin on the date established by the government, in-person attendance will be optional, and every school must be registered with the Health Department’s Bio-Portal and must be certified by the agency to reopen.

“I do not want to be repetitive, but what I am saying is that if a school is not in good condition, it will not open,” the governor said. “A school that has a principal who is not in a position to certify that they will comply with the protocols established by the Health Department is a school that will not open; a school that does not have teachers willing to provide in-person education is a school that does not open.”

When asked which schools were to finally reopen, Pierluisi said that even though 172 campuses were under “high potential” to reopen, the school administrations still must be certified by the Health Department. The agency announced the health and safety regulations upon which those certifications will be based last Friday.

“The secretary of Education will provide details as to which public schools will be open and when, specifically,” the governor said. “I believe that she is going to do it this Thursday.”

“And as it happens when there is any school start [date], in the schools as such, there is usually a date for the teachers to go to the school and then there is a later date for the students to go to the school,” he added.

In addition, the order requires schools to enforce physical distancing and that classrooms have up to 50% occupancy.

“Parents cannot be forced to send their children to schools. The decision, at this given moment and in the midst of this pandemic, is up to the parents,” Pierluisi said. “But my recommendation is that they allow them to have that face-to-face education because experts are the ones who are saying that it is indispensable for their physical and emotional development, as well as for their academic achievement.”

Meanwhile, the governor authorized a $20 million disbursement from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds for school bus drivers to prepare their vehicles for the return to in-person instruction. Those determinations came to fruition after School Bus Drivers Federation President José Rosado Rolón said on Feb. 2 that bus drivers had no insurance as they did not have the liquidity to pay for expenses.

The governor also authorized an $8 million disbursement to continue online education solutions.

Pierluisi confirmed that the executive order only authorizes the partial opening of public and private schools, not universities.

When asked if the government is at risk of losing federal funds if schools were not to reopen in March, as some people who oppose the reopening have suggested, Pierluisi said he has not seen a reopening delay affect federal funding assignments and that the reopening is focused on President Joe Biden’s goal to bring in-person instruction back in his first 100 days in office.

Furthermore, the governor said, he is waiting for the island Education Department to sign a contract with a third-party agency to oversee federal funds management in response to a request from the U.S. Department of Education, which has delayed the agency from gaining access to up to $400 million from the CARES Act.

“An approval from the Financial Oversight and Management Board is pending,” Pierluisi said.

Meanwhile, members of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association (AMPR by its Spanish initials) have said that the Health Department COVID-19 protocol for reopening does not take into account the reality schools face. When asked about teachers being penalized for not reporting to schools, Pierluisi said he trusts “the teachers.”

“I know that teachers are the first people to deliver in-person education if they have the chance,” he said. “I respect the AMPR leaders, but I must remind them that the person in charge of the Education Department was the former president of the association … and has the teachers at heart.”

At another press conference, AMPR President Víctor Manuel Bonilla Suárez responded to the governor by saying that even though Education Secretary-designate Elba Aponte Santos came from the association, it was the organization’s responsibility to defend teachers’ rights against anyone who takes the department’s executive seat, especially when workers’ public health and safety are at risk.

“During that press conference, the governor said that now school directors are responsible for enforcing safety measures against the coronavirus,” Bonilla Suárez said. “We have to tell school directors that you now hold great responsibility because you must certify that each school complies with every regulation established by the Health Department protocol.”

“We’re going to keep an eye out to make sure that every measure is followed,” he added.

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