School reopenings ‘are not conditioned only’ on inoculating teachers and non-academic workers

Points out need for oversight to ensure infrastructure is safe for students and staff

By Pedro Correa Henry

TWITTER: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

Even though it was expected that vaccinating employees of the island Education Department would be the key to reopening schools in Puerto Rico, designated Education Secretary Elba Aponte Santos said Tuesday that more needs to be done to reach the March preparedness goal set by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia.

During a press conference held at Federico Asenjo Pre-Technical School in Santurce, one of the three vaccination centers that opened Tuesday to inoculate the agency’s teachers and staff members, Aponte Santos said issues such as infrastructure, transportation, personnel recruitment, and getting schools into proper condition are being addressed to ensure a safe restart for both students and workers.

“Our expectation is for employees to have the opportunity to be vaccinated because it minimizes any risk and it’s a sense of protection, but [school reopenings] are not conditioned only on this,” she said.

The government projects it will inoculate around 55,000 people, which includes 17,000 private school employees, in the next 90 days.

Meanwhile, Aponte Santos said schools would be reopened in an “informed manner.”

“We have an expectation to move into a plan that we are designing and we have drawn up that goal with a sense of urgency,” the Education secretary said, adding that she has been holding conversations with both community members and the island Health Department to evaluate plans, as some have asked to begin with a partial reopening that includes more vulnerable groups, such as special education, pre-kinder to first grade, and 12th grade students.

“This is not going to be an imposition, this will be a consultation with the communities, school directors and, probably, we won’t have all 274,000 students [taking in-person classes at first], but [we need] a phase to see how they respond during the process and where we must prepare,” Aponte Santos said.

As for Tuesday’s vaccination efforts, the Education secretary said it was expected that around 300 employees would be inoculated at each vaccination center. Two other vaccination centers opened Tuesday at Rubén Rodríguez Coliseum in Bayamón and the Mayagüez Sports Palace.

Puerto Rico National Guard Adj. Gen. José Reyes said another five vaccination centers are expected to open next Monday in Loíza, Arroyo, Comerío, Ponce and Arecibo.

“We’re going to be administering around 10,000 vaccines weekly for the next six to eight weeks, which will allow us to reach that 70% of the [Education Department] population,” Reyes said, adding that administering both doses could take until March.

Puerto Rico Teachers Association (AMPR by its Spanish initials) President Víctor Manuel Bonilla Sánchez requested meanwhile that schools be thoroughly cleaned and certified as safe before reopening.

“At the least, we congratulate the National Guard on the initiative it has taken in vaccinating our colleagues, our teachers, and at least one of the areas is being attended,” Bonilla Sánchez said. “But we have to be aware of the other aspect, which is safety and how our schools are doing, in order to responsibly give our opinion.”

The AMPR president told members of the press that according to reports from associates in 438 schools, around 60% of schools remain unsuitable for receiving students.

“Sixty percent of the schools still have problems with debris collection, no weeding, problems like that in opening the schools to receive students,” he said.

Aponte Santos said various government agencies will be contributing to the reconditioning of schools and called on them to “unite and roll up their sleeves.”

When the STAR asked if it was still possible for schools to reopen in March with the Health Department reporting that the coronavirus positivity rate is at 12.3% and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that the recommended positivity rate for reopening schools should be under 3%, Aponte Santos said the Education Department is working “as a team” with the Health Department to ensure that schools are returned to suitable condition, and is keeping in constant communication with school communities.

“I must tell you that there have been families and communities asking us for permission to reopen their schools as they have developed their own plans; this has happened during this week,” the designated Education chief said, adding that she has referred those plans to Health Department epidemiologists for review.

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