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Puerto Rico’s Displaced Teachers Are Picking Up The Pieces In Hurricane Maria’s Aftermath


It’s been over 40 days since Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico and in that time, swaths of people have fled the island  -- 70 percent which is still without power. New York, Texas and Florida, have all seen hundreds of families pour in, swelling school districts. Orlando, for example, has seen 58,000 people from Puerto Rico come into the city and 4,300 children from the island have enrolled in Miami’s schools since the hurricane, reports PBS. All of this means a teacher shortage with the growing number of students and school districts are eager to hire Puerto Rican educators who have left the island.

So far, 119 of Puerto Rico’s schools have reopened, but it could be months more before the island’s remaining schools open, if some even reopen at all. For Puerto Rican teachers like Sylvia Mejias, an expectant mother, putting her life back together means getting back to teaching, even if that means leaving Puerto Rico behind. “I told my husband, ‘We have to move, because I’m pregnant,’” Mejias told WTSP. Mejias and her husband moved to Lakeland, Florida where they have family and she recently took a position teaching special education at an elementary school. “I think that things are getting better,” she said. The school district was quick to hire Mejias to help fill its 48 teaching positions and because some Puerto Rican teaching certificates transfer over to Florida.

Policymakers in New York have taken steps to approve a temporary certification process for Puerto Rican teachers who are moving to the state. Teachers would be able to start teaching almost immediately, while at the same time go through the process for standard New York certification. “We welcome all candidates who meet the state's certification standards, either for regular full-time positions as those positions become available, or as substitutes,” read an email from Albany district spokesman Ron Lesko.

Transitioning from teaching in Puerto Rico to Florida isn’t a complete breeze for displaced teachers, however. Puerto Rico does differ from Florida in that it breaks up its elementary certification into two categories: kindergarten through third-grade and fourth through sixth-grade. The matter can be complicated because Florida certifies its teachers for either pre-K through third-grade or all elementary school grades. For teachers like Glenyarid Meléndez-Rivera, whose certification in elementary English doesn’t perfectly align with Florida’s, the fix requires coughing up $200 to take a certification test. The state so far doesn't’ have any plans at this time to waive the fee, adding more stress to displaced teachers who could be strapped for cash because of the natural disaster. Meléndez-Rivera was told that she could apply for something non-instructional in the meantime such as substitute teaching. “It’s even less than what I made over in Puerto Rico, so that’s a bit frustrating,” she said.

Orlando’s school district has so far, hired 20 teachers and around a dozen custodians and cafeteria workers since the hurricane. Bridget Williams, chief of staff for the city’s public schools, said the district was grateful for the new hires. “We’re talking about some very qualified people,” she added.  

School district officials in Dallas are also working with the Texas Education Agency to expedite the review process for new Puerto Rican teachers.

Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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