Latin America

Puerto Rican educators: “We will not allow another tragedy.” (video)

Aftershocks continue to shake Puerto Rico and tens of thousands of people continue sleeping in the streets for fear of their homes collapsing during the night. Thousands have taken to the streets to demand governor Wanda Vásquez’s resignation after videos revealed the government has been hoarding material aid from as far back as Hurricane Maria two years ago. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican Department of Education has “rushed” students, staff, and parents back into potentially unsafe school buildings. Here, Monique Dols translated this statement from the Coalition of Puerto Rican Educator Unions for the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico‘s site. FMPR leader Mercedes Martinez’s summed up the coalition’s determination ” not allow another tragedy to happen like what happened after Hurricane Maria.” Please consider making a contribution to the FMPR Earthquake Survivors Solidarity Fund.

Video evidence of government hoarding material aid.

Faced with the beginning of the new semester for teaching staff in 224 Department of Education (DOE) schools in Puerto Rico this Thursday, January 23, the Frente Amplio en Defensa de la Educación Pública (FADEP)–or United Front in Defense of Public Education–is taking a stand for safe schools. The coalition of educator unions is joining forces with other unions that represent DOE workers to make specific demands and proposals to the DOE that will guarantee the security of students, educators and staff in light of the ongoing earthquakes.

“We have demanded that the DOE and the government publicize vital information that is needed in order to so that school communities can evaluate the risks in their facilities and establish emergency plans and protocols in the case of future tremors.” said Karen De León, vicepresidente del Sindicato Puertorriqueño de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras (SPT).

The information that the coalition is pushing the DOE to make public includes: a list of currently open schools that have the construction flaw known as the “short column” defect, a list that includes which schools were repaired in the 2000’s, which schools are considered earthquake resistant, including those which have been shut down, as well as the full findings of the recent DOE inspections of school buildings and facilities as well as the ones conducted right after Hurricane María.

“The inspections that they are conducting right now are walk-through inspections designed to visibly identify structural damages caused by the recent earthquakes. They do not determine whether or not a building is earthquake resistant. They leave open the need for a second round of more in depth inspections that establish whether or not a school is more fundamentally built to sustain future earthquakes. This kind of follow-up inspection has to begin immediately,” insisted the president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, Mercedes Martínez-Padilla.

The group is demanding that the government finance a plan to mitigate and correct the structural deficiencies that they find in the school buildings and DOE facilities.
“The government of Puerto Rico has about $8,300,000,000.00 in reserve to pay the debt. From this amount they must identify and allocate funds immediately to rehabilitate and repair the schools. Public education is one of the most critical essential services in the country and the lives of thousands of students, educators and school personnel are at stake. To us, the lives of the children and workers of Puerto Rico matter more than the interests of the bond holders,” explained the president of EDUCAMOS, Migdalia Santiago.

The unions criticize the way in which the DOE has rushed the beginning of the new semester. “All faculty and personnel need at least 5 days of preparation and training in order to get up to speed with the new reality in schools and in order to establish and roll out protocol for the case of another emergency. This must include: first aid training; emotional support services for  staff; emergency and earthquake management workshops; discussions of the specific emergency protocols in each school with their unique circumstances; a reevaluation and reworking of school structures in order to create smaller class sizes that are more manageable in the case of an emergency; a familiarization with evacuation routes and meetup points at each campus; as well as a discussion of the walk-through inspections that were done. This information has to be subsequently disseminated through school-wide assemblies with families,” detailed the president of the Unión Nacional de Educadores y Trabajadores de la Educación (UNETE), Liza Fournier Córdova.

“The events for families should not be done through an open house format in which families mingle and discuss in small groups, but through large scale assemblies where there can be a full, collective discussion of the situation. Parents have questions and proposals that deserve and need to be heard and considered by all.” urged Carmen Warren, spokesperson for the Comité Timón de Madres y Padres de Niños de Educación Especial, which is an advocacy group of families with children with disabilities.

Last week the group requested meetings with the speakers of the House and the Senate, the Secretary of Education Educación Eligio Hernández as well as Carlos Pesquera, engineer and advisor to the Governor in order to present and discuss the proposals. They have still not heard any response. Similarly, the responsible offices, the Office of Public School Improvement (OMEP) and the Public Buildings Authority (AEP) have still not provided vital information about the condition of the schools.

“Here we have a public policy problem which devalues and underfunds public education in favor of privatization. Because of this they have dismantled our schools and allowed them to deteriorate without paying attention to the structural problems of the facilities. Instead of investing in public education and public infrastructure and services, they have wasted public money on subcontractors, tutors, consultants and all manor of private companies.” commented Ángel Rodríguez, the president of the Asociación Puertorriqueña de Profesores Universitarios (APPU), which represents university professors.

“Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced, the House of Representatives and the Senate must pass a budget that allocates funds for a full rehabilitation of schools in order to correct the construction deficiencies that leave our schools unsafe. Our school communities are expecting nothing less, because it is actually a matter of life and death for them.” explained the president of Educadores Puertorriqueños en Acción (EPA), Domingo Madera.

“The families, educators and students of the south, where they were most affected by the earthquakes, do not even have schools to speak of. This requires community-wide discussions in order to determine viable solutions for the beginning of classes. It is critical that open spaces, sports and cultural arenas, as well as certified community and municipal facilities which have passed inspection be identified and considered as temporary school space for these communities.” said Jorge Soto, presidente de ONDEPR.

The group announced that they will carry out a campaign in every school to make sure that that the communities get the information that they need to protect and save the lives of students and school personnel. Every school will arm itself to do an inventory of supplies and take the initiative to create and go over emergency protocols before, during and after an earthquake.

Finally the coalition announced that they will join in the call to protest this Thursday, January 23 at 5:00 pm at the capitol building. The protest will will condemn the insensitivity and the negligence of the government as well as their inability to attend to the needs of the people after hurricane Maria as well as the recent earthquakes. “The negligence of this criminal government has cost us lives, and created so much pain and suffering. They won’t get away with it. The country demands justice. We demand a transparent, serious process before the beginning of the new semester which includes a specific and complete plan that ensures the safety of each school community. We demand specific and careful consideration for our classrooms with students with special needs. We will not allow another tragedy to happen like what happened after Hurricane Maria.” said FMPR president Mercedes Martinez.

This call has been endorsed by the following groups:

Centro de Apoyo Mutuo, Jibaro Lares, Colectivo Movimiento Indígena de PR , Ayuda Legal PR, Fideicomiso de Rio Piedras, Boricuá, Brigada Legal Solidaria, Colectivo Ilé, Kilómetro 0, Agitarte, Instituto Nueva Escuela, G-8, Comunidades Caño Martín Peña, Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, IDEBAJO, Center for Popular Democracy, Hedge Clippers, Campaña Construyamos Otro Acuerdo, Taller Salud, Jornada Se Acabaron las Promesas, HEEND, UGT, UTIER, UAW, and FCT.