NEW BRITAIN - As Hurricane Maria churned toward Puerto Rico, Joseenid Martin Gregory put her sons Eliot Saez Martin, 9, and his brother, Elionet, 5, on a plane to be with their grandfather in Connecticut, fearing their lives could be in danger if they stayed on the island.
As the scale of the devastation became clear, and the boys’ grandfather, Jose Martin, found no way to communicate with his daughter, he made arrangements to keep the boys here indefinitely. He bought notebooks and markers and enrolled his grandchildren at the local elementary school in New Britain.
“We didn't think the hurricane was going to be catastrophic. With the situation Puerto Rico is in now, it's difficult,” said Martin, a landscaper. “I thank God that the children are here. They're in school. They have food.”
The two brothers are among the first of what are expected to be large numbers of Puerto Rican children enrolling in school districts on the U.S. mainland, particularly in urban areas from Florida to New York to Massachusetts where families are planning to open their homes to displaced relatives.
The districts are making plans to accommodate students with a unique set of needs: Some coming from the Caribbean island have limited English skills, some are already weeks behind because island schools have been closed since Hurricane Irma, and others will be dealing with trauma from living through the storm and its aftermath.
The Category 4 storm that tore across the island on Sept. 20 with winds of 155 mph has left many to decide whether to ride out the months-long recovery, including the reconstruction of the electricity grid, or to take refuge on the U.S. mainland, at least for a while. Since commercial flights have not yet resumed regular schedules, it will likely be several weeks before districts have a true sense for the numbers.
Still, some are doing what they can to anticipate the scale of what's to come.
In Holyoke, Massachusetts, where 80 percent of the 5,300 schoolchildren are from the island or of Puerto Rican descent, parents are being asked to let the school district know as soon as possible if they plan to put up any school-age relatives. In Hartford, Connecticut, the superintendent directed the welcome center to closely track the number of families coming because of the hurricane in order to stay ahead of the trend.
At the top of the list of concerns is the emotional well-being of students, not only for newcomers but also children whose relatives are affected or whose homes could suddenly become crowded with extended family.
“It wasn't only going through the hurricane and listening to horrific winds and thinking there won't be a tomorrow,” said Ileana Cintron, chief of family and community engagement for Holyoke schools. “The aftermath of scarcity, and people being very anxious about where they will find food, that definitely has an impact on children.”
Martin said his grandsons understand a big storm hit Puerto Rico, but he and his wife try to keep them distracted with trips to the park. Neither boy speaks English, and both are receiving special language instruction. Martin said they seem happy at Chamberlain Elementary School in this city just west of Hartford.
“They don't ask too many questions about what happened in Puerto Rico, what happened with mama, what happened with grandmama,” he said. “We're doing our best.”
Martin still has not been able to speak the boys’ mother in San German. A nephew in New Jersey heard from a nephew in Puerto Rico two days after the storm that she was alive, but he hasn't heard more.
School districts up and down the East Coast are accustomed to receiving new families from the island. More than 450,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland over the last decade amid the territory's economic recession. After the island government announced last spring that it would close 179 public schools, some already were expecting island students to arrive in bigger numbers this fall.
“The unfortunate occurrence of Hurricane Maria has expedited those plans,” said Khalid Mumin, superintendent in Reading, Pennsylvania, where plans include parent outreach assistants at each school.
In the hurricane's aftermath, districts are instructing personnel to pull out the stops in enrolling displaced children. Under federal law, schools are required to immediately enroll children who have lost their homes, including those affected by natural disasters.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he expects hundreds, and possibly thousands of new students to enroll in public schools once commercial flights begin to normalize. He has been in talks with Puerto Rico's education secretary, Julia Keleher, on ways in which they could adapt the curriculum for the evacuee students. He said the district also is studying how it may need to adapt transportation routes to move students to areas where there is space available.
In New York City, the mayor and the schools chancellor said this week that they expect more families from devastated areas of the Caribbean, and the education department will do all it can to support the displaced students.
For Martin, the greatest concern is for his daughter and other relatives still in Puerto Rico.
“Here everything is fine,” he said. “I would love to get help for my people.”