Healing the gaping wound

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 10/23/2017, 7:35 a.m.
A National Public Radio story this week described a visit to Escuela Gaspar Vila Mayans, a public elementary school in ...

Children’s Defense Fund

A National Public Radio story this week described a visit to Escuela Gaspar Vila Mayans, a public elementary school in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Presente!” about 40 children shout on cue – they’re the ones who are able to be present. More than three-quarters of the student body isn’t here. Communications are spotty, so some may not be aware that this school has reopened. Principal Rita Barreto says many kids and their families are still dealing with the storm’s devastation, after losing “almost everything; the clothes, the furniture, the food” – for some students, even their homes. The school is open during mornings now, as of last Wednesday, and it’s not clear when it will be back to full capacity. It has water, but no power. “This is a safe place,” Barreto tells the students. “We are going to have breakfast, we are going to have lunch, we are going to have fun activities just so that you can have fun.” The principal says some children told her their lunch of oatmeal and apple sauce was their first full meal since the storm.

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged the entire island of Puerto Rico, the children who have returned to school for a few hours a day in a building with no power are some of the lucky ones. Most of Puerto Rico’s 1,113 public schools have not reopened yet. Some are still being used as emergency shelters for families who lost their homes in the storm. Eighty-four percent of the island remains without power, and some areas may stay that way for at least six months. More than a million people still lack access to clean drinking water. Food, medicine, cash and fuel are in short supply. Disease outbreaks have begun and medical emergencies are widespread, but hospitals have not regained full power or capacity. The death toll continues to rise. In the very hardest hit rural areas, some communities have not been able to make contact or receive any relief supplies or help at all.

Sick, older and the very young people are especially vulnerable right now. Current conditions seem unfathomable but the sad reality is Puerto Rico’s children were some of the most at risk in America long before the storm. Nearly 6 in 10 of its children were poor in 2016 – more than 390,000 children. This child poverty rate was almost double that of New Mexico and Mississippi, the two states with the highest child poverty rates. Between 2011-2015, Puerto Rican child poverty exceeded 60 percent in 44 of the 78 towns and cities. More than 4 in 10 children under 6 lived in extreme child poverty at half the poverty line or lower, a rate more than four times our national average. In 2016, 38.9 percent of households in Puerto Rico received benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly food stamps – compared with 12.4 percent of all mainland U.S. households. About 1.7 million people were enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP in Puerto Rico in 2015, nearly half of the total population, but 20,000 children lacked any health insurance. More than 3/4 of Puerto Rico’s children who were eligible for Head Start were not enrolled in the program, and nearly 100 percent of students in fourth and eighth grade performed below grade level in math.