“I arrived at your school

without understanding why…”

Rubén Blades

She would be the first in her family to finish high school. But at least for this year, that dream is on hold. In October she got a letter from the school via email, notifying her parents that the 17-year-old had “F’s” in all six of her classes. If there are no “drastic changes” in her performance or academic achievement during this second semester, the student would be “a candidate to repeat the grade next year,” the document states.

She wants to be a paramedic. She had never failed in a subject. After getting the letter, she deleted the applications that she used for remote learning from her cell phone and told her parents that she would not study anymore, because she “didn’t know what to do to avoid being seen as irresponsible.” She heard that adjective, she recalls, multiple times from   some teachers, when the internet on her phone constantly failed   her and she was not given credit for assignments sent after  school hours.

“I could kill myself working on my assignments for hours and when I submitted them I would get a zero, because I was absent. They called my mother and told her that there was no other option, that I’m going to have to repeat the grade,” said Karina, a fictitious name that protects her real identity.

The teenager speaks with a frown on her face. She lives with her parents and three other siblings in the Sierra Linda public housing complex in Bayamón, 10 miles East of San Juan. She never received the computer that the Puerto Rico Department of Education (DE) promised. The tool that she used during the months that she was active last semester was a cell phone.

When her mother activated internet service at home, with the subsidy that former Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced in October, “it was too late,” Karina explained to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish). “I have to repeat the grade, because two of the classes were half credit,” she says. “Those half-credit classes cannot be made up in the second semester.”

Getting an internet connection was a headache. That was the first of a long list of problems in the midst of so much family struggle. “I never had a signal [on the cell phone] and some teachers didn’t understand,” she says, looking at her siblings and at her mother, who has a lot to say, although she keeps silent listening to her daughter.

Karina stresses that she could not hand in many of her assignments, because she did not connect frequently to classes. She also says that she got points deducted for not turning them in on time. For her that is absurd, because “I moved around everywhere in the housing project [looking for a connection], but with COVID-19, things are hard.”

She is the oldest of the four siblings. Her mother is employed in a nursing home, where she works full time. In March, her father stopped working to take on chores around the house.

According to data provided by the Public Housing Administration provided, the average annual income of public housing families in Puerto Rico is around   $7,400. For public housing families with children under 18, that annual average drops to $5,245.

Karina repeats. “I’ve always wanted to graduate from high school, but I just lost my will. I had never failed or had bad grades. Six F’s, one for  every class.”

Before listening to what her mother has to say, she takes the opportunity to relive one of the memories of the past semester that affected her the most and that still “blows her mind.”

“One time, a friend re-sent me an assignment. She sent me the link, because the application [on the phone] kept crashing. Sometimes I don’t get the emails, my phone goes crazy and closes the application. And the teacher said she couldn’t send me the assignment because I wasn’t in class. She said none of the students could share the homework.” She needs to be honest. “There was a meeting of all the teachers, and she denied [that she had asked that they not share assignments], even though I have the recording of her [saying it]. I know that having a recording [without consent] is wrong, but it’s my evidence that I was doing the work and they would give me zero or not accept it for not connecting.”

Last academic year (2019-2020) 77% of the DE’s enrollment was economically disadvantaged, according to data from the agency. For that year, according to the DE, the general attendance rate among students in the public system was 93.47%. That number did not change in the case   of economically disadvantaged students, whose attendance rate was 93.35%.

The CPI asked the DE for detailed attendance and achievement reports to learn how many students had poor academic performance as of December 2020, but the agency did not provide the data.

Emotional burden is heavy

Karina’s mother is Astrid Salgado Olivieri and she wants them to see her face, to listen to her carefully. “The other three children are also doing badly,” her mother says angrily. “If they don’t understand the tasks, I understand less, because I don’t know how to handle technology.”

Astrid Salgado Olivieri.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

The mother points out that the virtual educational process does not work. “It affects both teacher and student emotionally,” she says. “It confuses them. Teachers who knew nothing about technology had to take classes, get up to date in technology and get in there. So, there are many students, who are there, but they really aren’t. I’m aware that the teacher may be there [in front of the computer] talking to you, all the students appear on the screen, but they’re really not connected. That affects them emotionally,” the mother said.

One of her children is in the Special Education program, with specific learning disabilities. When he was evaluated during the pandemic, her son was evaluated with  the same standards as regular students, “ignoring his needs.”

“They don’t call me to follow up on my son or ask if he’s doing well. What they call me for is to say, ‘Mom, if he doesn’t do his homework, he’s going to fail.’ And I’m like, there’s no way [for him to do homework], because he doesn’t read. It’s between 10 and 15 assignments a day for the mind of that boy and his father as well. It’s traumatic. The little girl has always had excellent grades, and she [now] has F,” she emphasizes.

The mother also points out the emotional impact of a lack of distractions. She criticizes the excessive work that in the end “is useless, because they don’t learn.”

“The oldest has 107 assignments pending since August.” She lets out a laugh. “There’s no weekend, there’s no fun. Well, [the kids] close everything [the applications] and leave [the apartment to walk around the complex]. If they misbehave in a classroom, imagine how it is in front of a computer or tablet. This is something that doesn’t let you think, it upsets you in many ways . There’s no life.”

The mother believes it is time for face-to-face classes to resume for everyone’s benefit. But she doesn’t trust the authorities and their planning.

“And when all those students meet? It would be nice, because school is their place. They learn more there than virtually. But the downside is that the way things are running [in the Government] there are going to be more infections.”

Before concluding, she assured that her eldest daughter will finish the grade, whether it be by looking for every alternative or by paying for the exam to complete her senior year. “Because it’s like I tell them, they have to be better than me. And that’s why I’m going to help them. So much effort and that in less of a blink of an eye they say that it won’t happen because she didn’t connect to classes regularly. If [the Department of] Education had provided the aid in August, instead of almost December, there would be no failures like my daughter’s. This is sickening.”

Astrid is not wrong. A study published in the JAMA Network journal of the American Medical Association found that the prevalence of depression symptoms is more than three times higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before. Low income, little savings, and exposure to stressors were associated with an increased risk of depression symptoms.

Opening schools is urgent

At the Las Margaritas public housing project in San Juan, Zoritza Garrido Meléndez says that if face-to-face classes do not resume before March, as Gov. Pedro Pierluisi has said, she doesn’t know what will become of her family, because she needs to work. She is a single mother of five, and two of her children have mental conditions. She does not get financial support from the children’s father. The money she gets is from financial assistance from the Government and she relies on donations from nonprofits to fill her refrigerator.

Zoritza Garrido Meléndez and her four children.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

“It’s horrible,” she says when asked about her daily routine. “I literally have no life. My role as a mom takes up too many hours out of my day. Mom has to clean, Mom has to take care of them, Mom has to help with school work, Mom has to prevent fights, Mom has to cook food….” She sighs.

She wants efforts to focus on enabling schools for students to return to the classroom so she can see some relief from the many home chores. But like Astrid, she doesn’t trust the authorities and the efficiency of their protocols. “They weren’t ready with the computers and modules, I don’t think they’re ready for this,” she says.

Zoritza says the internet does not work well in the housing complex. It is the same as Astrid’s, from telecommunications provider Claro, paid for with the government subsidy. She notes the difficulty of achieving a balance between the schedules of each of her children, since three of them are at the elementary level and their schedules vary. She did receive part of the electronic equipment that the DE promised.

A request for a reaction from Claro about the deficiencies of its service contracted by the Government was not provided as of press time.

“They study every day and at different schedules. Sometimes I even forget each one’s hours. I understand that my children’s education is my responsibility, but I’m already in an economic situation in which I need to work. We practically don’t leave the apartment.”

Zoritza says her children have not learned through distance education during the pandemic.

“One of the girls was learning to read and she regressed. I don’t have the time to sit down for three hours with each one of the kids. I would spend the whole day on that. This is what I explain to the teachers: if I spend the time they require, they would starve, because who’s going to cook for them? Who will take care of them? They should analyze each case individually [before penalizing them for not turning in assignments]. They give too many assignments. You’re on it until late at night.”

“The most I can do at the moment is to protect them, wash their hands well and keep them at home as long as possible, but I do give them space to play, because they’re not animals to keep them locked up.”

Surviving in the housing complex

At this stage of the pandemic, Zoritza’s children say that they’re hungry all the time. “Anxiety causes them to eat. Sometimes I go out to get food for them from the school cafeteria. At four in the afternoon, they distribute food at the Boys & Girls Club, and I go pick that up too.”

The Boys & Girls Club of Puerto Rico Food Program has delivered more than 74,786 hot meals to participants, their families and people in the community. Sixty-two percent of the organization’s active members live in public housing projects and 92% study in public schools.

That community outreach has not been limited to the daily distribution of food. The centers have also served as spaces to strengthen their members academically. The educational coordinator of the Las Margaritas Boys & Girls Club, Widalys Ortiz Rodríguez, acknowledges that the homework load for each student “was enormous” last semester.

Widalys Ortiz Rodríguez.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

Ortiz Rodríguez leads the initiative that reaches  more than 200 minors under 18 years old in this housing complex’s club. She understands it is a big and challenging commitment, as she identifies with many mothers.

“Our mission focused on that main need [to help with overseeing student assignments], in addition to food, which has always been a priority in our population. We divide the team’s duties to provide support in the different subjects,” she pointed out.

Forty three percent of the Boys & Girls Club Puerto Rico participants are raised by mothers who are heads of households.

Sherika Nisbett is a college student and nurse. She is the mother of two young children, 13 and 14 years old. She says “the kids have been quarantined most of the time” in her apartment, which is also at the Las Margaritas housing project. “They almost never go out.”

She is the head of household. She is also single. She says life took a 180 degree turn for them with the pandemic. “I have had to constantly change my schedule.” She works during the day, she does double-shifts to stay afloat financially and she doesn’t know how her children are doing in their classes, because “they have to study alone at home.”

“When I do my shift from 2 pm to 10 at night, I can’t go near them. I go straight to the laundry and change clothes, bathe and finish my chores after midnight.”

From left to right: Caryl and Gilberto Sánchez Nisbett, children of Sherika Nisbett.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

At Sherika’s workplace, positive COVID-19 cases have already been registered.

“Lately, I’m doing a shift from 6:00 to 2:00  in the afternoon. That complicates things for me because the kids have to get up at 4:00  in the morning to do their homework. In the public housing project, there are many people who don’t understand or don’t want to understand what’s happening. There are many children who don’t even know about the pandemic. A neighbor once asked my boy why he was wearing a mask and said hi from afar. That boy has no idea of what’s happening right now. Many people want to ignore this,” Sherika says, emphasizing the sense of responsibility that her children have developed.

They have two computers for the new semester, one that is hers and one that the DE provided. The oldest daughter used the cell phone last semester. She said she has also had problems with Claro’s internet connection that she activated through the government subsidy.

Sherika says that she would like for classes to be in-person to strike a better balance between work, home and school. She said she has to make “small shopping trips” on a weekly basis. “They’re growing up and they eat constantly. At four o’clock, they go down to the Boys & Girls Club to get food.”

The urgency to pick up that plate of hot food every day has a reason for being. “On a normal day, those kids spend 24 hours at home. I spent almost 18 hours outside. I double shift. Sometimes I’m at home for only eight or six hours,” the mother said.

The challenge of teaching

The last academic year, which ended on June 5, 2020, former Education Secretary Eligio Hernández, announced that all public school students would be promoted to the next grade due to the challenges posed by the earthquakes and the pandemic. Now, that decision complicates the scenario for May, a middle school teacher identified for this story as Mrs. Rodriguez predicts.

in the center, Eligio Hernández.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

“There is a lower academic achievement compared to 2019,” she said, after explaining that a comparison should not be made with the academic semester that ended in May 2020, “because the Secretary [Eligio Hernández] practically forced teachers to pass the majority of the students.”

“There has not been an adjustment [in the way students are evaluated] and it seems to me that there still will not be,” she said.

The Spanish teacher assures that at her school, the plan to contact students fell mainly on the school counselor and the social worker. “They visited their homes,” she says. “But I still have students that we don’t know about, or about their families.”

Mrs. Rodríguez told the CPI that the teachers had done everything that the DE instructed the directors. In other words, “that we call [the parents], that we go to their homes, that we communicate through email, but there are still students that we haven’t found.”

She oversees five groups of between 25 and 30 students. At the end of last school semester, 17 of her students finished with low academic achievement, with a D or F the whole  20 weeks.

“I had students working in Teams, students working on modules by email, students who collected printed modules with agreed deadlines to turn them in at school, students who sent me photos of their assignments on WhatsApp. I’ve had to work with students through different means.”

She added that there were many students who were not familiar with computers, others who did not know how to work in Word or did not know how to use PowerPoint or video conferencing applications. The DE still has the challenge of striking a balance in student evaluations, while adjusting to the agency’s bureaucratic demands, with an educational system that can support those with the fewest resources, rather than leaving them to their own devices.

“We have to find a way to help and offer alternatives to the student. We weren’t told what could and couldn’t be used, that was up to the individual teacher. We must leave the doors open at our school until May. We as a faculty, plan to do that. But each school has its particular circumstances,” she said.

While there are teachers going the extra mile, the school has not been effective with the most vulnerable.

José M. Encarnación Martínez is a member of Report for America