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Shuttered school in Puerto Rico opens its doors for community in need

Hurricane Maria has taken a toll on Puerto Rico’s power grid and water supply, but for children, school closures and isolation from friends presents a daily reminder of the storm's devastation. For a working class community outside San Juan, schools have become spaces of refuge where people can access food, medicine and psychological support. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports.

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    Progress remains painfully slow for the residents of Puerto Rico.

    Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, only slightly more than half the island has access to clean drinking water. Just 11 percent have electric power.

    Those two statistics disappeared from the Federal Emergency Management Web site yesterday, but, after criticism, were restored today.

    Tonight, special correspondent Monica Villamizar looks at a school in a working-class community just outside San Juan.

  • YULIZA DE JESUS SANCHEZ, Carolina Resident (through interpreter):

    As Puerto Ricans, we tend to keep a positive attitude. In spite of everything happening around us, we believe in God, and I think this has united us as a people.


    When the local school in Carolina announced its opening Wednesday, hundreds flocked to its gates. They didn't want to ask about class. They wanted food.

    In the wake of Hurricane Maria, and the massive toll it's taken here, the Jose Severo Quinones public school now serves as a food bank, health clinic, and child care facility. It is among 22 public schools, out of 1,100, that the government has started opening for extracurricular activities.

    Yuliza De Jesus Sanchez, a gym teacher here, now brings her daughter in for group mentoring.

  • YULIZA DE JESUS SANCHEZ (through interpreter):

    Not every child expresses sadness, crying. I can see my daughter is sad. She is sad not to be in school sharing with her friends.

  • YULIMAR GIMENEZ DE JESUS, 10 Years Old (through interpreter):

    Every day, I get up and get dressed to go to school, but this is the only school I can go to. I have nothing else.


    Yulimar, Yuliza's daughter, is enrolled in another school which is still closed. She remains without water or electricity in her home, like most students in this area, where nine in 10 are from low-income families.

    Yulimar is a budding guitar player. And when she played her favorite song, the teachers had an idea.

  • YULIZA DE JESUS SANCHEZ (through interpreter):

    They said, hey, let's take the melody and write our own lyrics to the song to sing about what is happening in Puerto Rico and motivate the community, to make people happy.

    It means, in spite of all the bad stuff happening, if we work together, we can accomplish anything.


    There are no classes going on here, but inside the rooms, you find youth activities, food distribution, and psychological support for children and for adults.

    In communities in need, these schools have become the backbone for the whole neighborhood.

    Each morning now, adults outside queue up for a variety of services from the Red Cross. Some patients have infections or other symptoms from the storm. Many have lost their medicines. Some drugs, like insulin, need refrigeration, a rarity on an island that remains 90 percent without power.

    Luciana Roman almost died when her insulin levels rose five times the normal level, after her medications were destroyed in the storm.

  • LUCIANA ROMAN, 75 Years Old (through interpreter):

    I had some coffee and two biscuits and came here. I haven't eaten anything else today. I'm supposed to eat another meal, but there is nothing in the stores here. I came to get the blood checked because I felt bad.


    Just as important are the mental health services, says Red Cross volunteer Edward Fankhanel.

  • EDWARD FANKHANEL, Psychologyst:

    People are still a little bit in shock, and they're still trying to process what's going on. And then they have to face reality, that some don't have a house, don't have food for today. So those are physical things that they need to address immediately that affect their emotional states.


    Outside, residents wait in the hot sun for food.

    Marisol Vasquez says she lost everything during the hurricane. Now she has set her sights on a brighter, permanent future beyond the island in Florida.

  • MARISOL VASQUEZ, Carolina Resident (through interpreter):

    I'm going to call my family to send me a plane ticket because aid is just not getting here. Everything is delayed.


    Principal Daixa Irizarry is a 40-year resident of Carolina. Along with looking after the kids, she is working with the community to organize aid distribution.

    Meanwhile, local residents continue to arrive, famished and in bad health. She says the food lines and desperation have made an impact.

  • DAIXA IRIZARRY, School Principal (through interpreter):

    My soul is shattered. This is the hidden face of Puerto Rico. I have been a principal at this school for 10 years, and I know my community well.

    I saw such poverty yesterday. I want the government to come here and see what I saw, old people, 80 years at least, on walkers looking for food, people eating with their hands frantically. This is a very different Puerto Rico.


    Puerto Rico's education secretary, Julia Keleher, wants a swift return to class, and she's set a deadline two weeks away.

    JULIA KELEHER, Secretary of Education, Puerto Rico: We have the experience and the practice. We know how to do it. And the shelters aren't preventing us from coming back online. I just will temporarily locate those students in a different school building.

    The issue that would prevent 100 percent being back online is the access to electricity.


    But Keleher and her staff are still unable to reach some rural schools that remain completely cut off.


    At some point, we're going to have to kind of start walking again, despite the fact that our muscles are a little sore. And I get that. And there's a lot of respect for the human experience of this.

    But my responsibility is making sure that the kids in the island of Puerto Rico have access to a high-quality education.


    Secretary Keleher visited the Carolina school herself, and her team delivered pamphlets to school administrators on how to deal with returning students suffering from trauma from the hurricane.

    But Principal Irizarry says the needs of her community are more basic, and more urgent.

  • DAIXA IRIZARRY (through interpreter):

    We were given an instruction manual, and we were told, by the way, that we were going to receive aid from the State Department. I asked the secretary personally that we urgently needed help with some teachers who had been severely affected and were entering a critical phase.

    Some need insulin. Some lost their homes. We have to meet the children's needs, but also the teachers. We were told the Health Department would come. They didn't.


    So, for now, despite the long road ahead, Irizarry is focusing where she can. She remains determined to meet government requirements. Classes are set to begin here next week, alongside other community services.

  • DAIXA IRIZARRY (through interpreter):

    Schools are where everything begins. The seeds for the future are planted in schools.


    Healing the community with food, with health, and with song.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Monica Villamizar, Carolina, Puerto Rico.

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