13-year-old Leydi climbs up the steps to get onto the slide, and when she slides down, she is smiling the whole way. Her mother, Jinnette Morales Díaz, is watching as Leydi plays in the playground, but not too vigilantly because they have been to this park many times and Leydi knows her way around. “My daughter receives services 12 months of the year. Because of the condition she has, one month without her therapies, and she’s going to have a regression where she loses everything she’s learned and all that she has benefited from during this process,” Jinnette describes. She is an activist in the movement to keep schools in Puerto Rico open, and a facilitator of special education resources for families in Puerto Rico that have children with a variety of learning and functioning challenges. Leydi goes to school in the San Juan region, and her school will be a “Receptor School” for a nearby school’s students who are facing the Department of Education’s closing of 283 schools across the island for the 2018-19 academic year. Jinnette’s nervousness about how this will affect her daughter’s education come after Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on the island in October 2017, causing many families to seek shelter in nearby schools. Leydi’s school was one of these shelters, putting her and her 400 classmates out of school for 2 months. During this period, Leydi was sad and aggressive, a natural response to a drastically different routine and a prolonged period without the learning and educational support she had been used to. “There were already schools closed. I never understood why they [the government] didn’t use the schools that were already closed [as shelters] so that it didn’t affect the services for these kids. And they moved us to one school, as if we were furniture. You move it here, and then over there,” Jinnette expressed with frustration. “Here kids are not human beings. To this administration, kids are not human beings. Education is not a right, it is a business."
The Secretary of Education Julia Keleher announced the school closings in May without advising schools or families beforehand and giving no reason for the criteria used to choose which schools would close. This is not the first time there has been massive school closings on the island. Last year, 167 public schools closed to help alleviate the island’s $123 billion owed in debt and pensions. This year, mobilization against the 283 schools added to the list of closing schools is mounting, especially because many of the schools that closed currently offer special education services to the over 140,000 students in Puerto Rico enrolled in a special education program, about 40% of the total number of students in Puerto Rico.
When the Fall academic year began in August, the schools on the list did indeed close and the students were consolidated into the receptor schools. Mothers have explained that the situation is "complete chaos" and noone is being treated fairly. With mounting protests against the administration's decisions, there is hope that change will come next year and that better resources will be available for students of special education in the future.
This is an ongoing project, but it began in June, before the schools were closed. It is meant to reflect the hope and nervousness of the time before schools were officially closed. I hope to go back soon to understand the difficulties families are now facing.