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Since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, more than 20,000 students have left the island, which has put the future of some schools in jeopardy. NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Buenos dias.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Buenos dias.
MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Students in yellow-and-blue uniforms line up in rows on a school basketball court going through their morning exercises. It's a sign of how things are getting back to normal at Gaspar Vila Mayans elementary school. It's in a low-income area in the capital of San Juan. And this school was relatively lucky. It reopened just two weeks after the storm hit. It quickly became a lifeline for the community, providing food, activities and a sense of normalcy to students and their parents. But all that may be at risk. This and other schools across Puerto Rico may need to shut down because so many students have left for the mainland, and it's unclear whether they'll come back.
RITA BARRETO: A lot of kids went to the United States - almost 50.
KENNEDY: Principal Rita Barreto walks down a hallway where some classrooms are completely empty. The school was already at less than half capacity before the storm. Weeks after Maria, the Education Department shut the school down temporarily due to low enrollment, forcing kids and teachers to go elsewhere. Now Barreto admits that it's not clear that the school has the numbers to continue after this academic year.
BARRETO: The school needs students to operate. If you don't have students, you don't have a school.
KENNEDY: And more students are planning to leave the system, like 11-year-old Janiel, who says his family is heading to Florida at the end of the school year.
JANIEL: I will meet and new teachers.
KENNEDY: Around the corner, Yahaira Rodriguez is dropping off her son, a fifth grader. She says for them, the school's temporary closure in October-November was a disaster.
YAHAIRA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KENNEDY: She says she was blindsided by the decision. The school was where her family came for meals and support. Her son attended two different schools when this one closed, and now his mom says he's behind in his classes. This debate over shutting down schools infuriates Mercedes Martinez. She's the president of the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation, one of the island's main teachers unions. She says the Education Department is using the hurricane as an excuse to accelerate school closures.
MERCEDES MARTINEZ: Our secretary of education has a plan to shut down schools, and she wanted to close more, but the communities have fought back.
KENNEDY: Secretary of Education Julia Keleher says she has no choice.
JULIA KELEHER: Oh, we definitely have to close schools, yeah.
KENNEDY: Keleher says dramatic changes were needed even before the storm, and the hurricane is making a reorganization of Puerto Rico's entire education system all the more necessary. The schools and the whole government of Puerto Rico are in a fiscal crisis. The Department closed nearly 170 schools after last school year, and Keleher points to another 180 with fewer than 150 kids. There may also be federal funding cuts looming due to reduced enrollment.
KELEHER: There's not enough to go around to that many sites to ensure some level of quality of service.
KENNEDY: Keleher says she inherited a system with too much bureaucracy and a random, uneven budget distribution. There are still too many schools with low enrollment, she says, and the cost of keeping them open could mean a lack of resources for crucial supplies like books.
KELEHER: I can't lose sight of the obligation that I have to be a good steward of the limited resources that we have.
KENNEDY: Keleher says she understands the pain this can cause at schools like Gaspar Vila Mayans. But she says whether schools like that one are going to stay open is going to come down to the numbers.
Merrit Kennedy, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "MY HEART'S REFLECTION")
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