Months after several earthquakes shook the island, new educational initiatives emerge in the face of unique challenges
Education systems across the country have had to pivot quickly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including shifting learning to online and digital platforms. In addition to the challenges presented by the global pandemic, Puerto Rico has faced a series of natural disasters that forced the island to make adjustments and find new learning strategies. The various experiences Puerto Ricans have had with natural disasters provided a roadmap to handling the COVID-19 outbreak.
In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island, destroying homes and forcing businesses, organizations, and essential government services to close. On January 7, 2020, while the Puerto Rican government and its citizens were still recovering from the 2017 hurricanes, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake shook the entire island, further exposing the fragility of the island’s buildings. Since many schools collapsed or became architecturally inadequate to receive students, the country’s education system took one of the hardest hits.
In the face of these challenges, several new educational initiatives emerged. Among them were “Escuela Sin Paredes” (School Without Walls) and the “Educamos Donde Sea” (We Educate Wherever). The Montessori communities of Puerto Rico led the first initiative to launch the semester’s classes and provide a safe place for students during the day. To achieve this, they improvised classrooms with open-air tents where students and teachers could come together to continue the learning process. The second incentive worked as an improvised school alternative, where teachers volunteered about five hours of their time from Monday to Friday to offer classes to students from pre-school to sixth grade.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the “Educamos Donde Sea” project attracted 183 students from various schools in Ponce. The program also opened in municipalities affected by the earthquakes that occurred in the south area since December 28, 2019.
Despite the success of these programs, many areas still face enormous challenges, made even more difficult with the spread of COVID-19. The Puerto Rico Hurricane Response Hub has also had to shift its strategy for providing education and resources to support population health on the island. Our team worked with Dr. Melissa Marzan, a Ponce Health Sciences University epidemiologist, Dr. Jose Rodriguez Orengo from the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust, and Mr. Pablo Rios, GIS Specialist at the Puerto Rico Science Trust, to develop a COVID-19 epidemiological surveillance tool. The tool helps health officials monitor the spread of the virus daily through the self-identification of known symptoms. The data provides real-time information that helps leaders develop effective prevention strategies by geographic area.
Government organizations, like the Puerto Rico Department of Education (DE), can use the surveillance tool to develop strategies and make decisions for schools on the island. In recent weeks, the DE has initiated virtual learning modules to prevent students from missing classes, especially those who will soon graduate from high school and enter college.
The people of Puerto Rico have learned to be resilient during tragic and uncertain times, and this resiliency will be a boon to our recovery efforts in education and other service areas after the pandemic. We will continue to learn and improve our public health efforts to prepare for disasters and other epidemiological concerns in the future.
How You Can Get Involved
To request training or to get more information about how the Hurricane Response Hub can help your organization improve its hurricane-related disaster-related health recovery efforts, visit https://nnphi.org/focus-areas-service/hurricane-response-hub/.
For more information on National Public Health Week 2020, visit http://www.nphw.org/nphw-2020.