After the Christmas holidays and after the morning rituals after sounding the alarm clock, this Monday 274,224 students will appear in the virtual classroom at the beginning of an atypical second semester of the school year, and with the expectation of being reunited with their classrooms and desks in March.
At the end of December, the temporary modules that were used to compensate for access to printed educational material for those who did not have access to electronic equipment or Internet services were left behind, an issue that must be overcome for this new semester, according to the designee. Secretary of the Department of Education (DE), Elba Aponte Santos, in an interview with THE SPOKESMAN.
Aponte Santos has been participating for days in meetings with the designated Secretary of the Department of Health, Carlos Mellado, with the general adjutant of the National Guard of Puerto Rico, José Juan Reyes, and with the mayors of the Island to shape the vaccination plan against Covid-19 for teaching and non-teaching employees, to eventually resume face-to-face classes.
“All vaccination efforts will be in accordance with the Health agencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are constantly working closely with us to be effective in the vaccination process. Likewise, the National Guard and the Department of Health are collaborating with the DE ”, he said.
He indicated that in addition to the process to vaccinate staff and teachers, there is a health and safety contingency plan that includes cleaning, disinfection, distribution of masks and disinfection products for all schools.
“All this is an integral part of the management that we are doing as an agency before, during and after the opening of the schools. Over two million reusable cloth masks have been distributed to all schools for students. The teachers have already received theirs and we have also donated to private schools ”, he explained.
– What issues are to be resolved at the beginning of this semester and what are your expectations?
“There is certainly a lot of work to do. The issue of rebuilding schools is high on the work agenda. We are strengthening the DE infrastructure office to streamline school repair projects. We are in constant communication with the Infrastructure Financing Authority, the Public Buildings Authority, the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) so that the millions allocated, the evaluations, inspections and reconstruction work are progressing ”, he replied. Of 855 schools in the public education system in Puerto Rico, 140 are considered unfit for use.
Mayors of municipalities in the southwest area that were impacted by the January 2020 earthquakes previously expressed THE SPOKESMAN that their schools have not been repaired and they do not believe that they will be able to resume face-to-face classes by March, as Governor Pedro Pierluisi projects.
Attention to academic achievement
The designated secretary also pointed out that the issue of academic achievement is a priority amid the adjustments that have been made due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The issue of academic achievement will still have priority in the work plans because we know that the tremors and the pandemic may have caused a certain level of lag and we also want to advance in that matter. As well as special education services, it is an area that must be worked on so that there is less bureaucracy and services reach the student more quickly ”, he highlighted.
– What evaluation will be made of academic achievement?
“At the beginning of each semester the teachers take a few days to review the students’ skills. In addition, we have been working with the University of Puerto Rico to implement a tutoring program in the main subjects with pedagogy students. On the other hand, we are identifying funds to achieve the extension of school hours in schools. In this way we will be able to reinforce any lag shown by the students ”, Aponte Santos explained. He mentioned that the teaching staff started working yesterday.
– As for the students who return to virtual classes on Monday, what percentage should not yet have a computer and how many do not have access to the Internet?
“All computers were delivered in full for the teachers. Delivery was completed in summer 2020. At the end of November, the distribution of electronic equipment to schools began to be delivered to students. More than 156,000 transactions were registered to benefit from the subsidy for internet payment, which contributed to closing that digital gap in access to technology that was in place when the pandemic and the earthquakes began in the south. The date to request the benefit was even extended until December 30 so that more families could take up the service, ”reported the former president of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association, about the efforts of the previous secretary.
When questioned about the use of the educational modules that were printed for students who did not have accessible digital technology and whose parents had to look in schools for their children to have the teaching material, the designated Secretary of Education stressed that this was a short-term initiative.
“The modules were an additional instructional tool for teachers and students in the learning process. The modules were used for a short period of time. Now our students have digital textbooks for the five core subjects. In December the link for access was sent to the official email of students and teachers ”, he added, to mean that there should be no students without access to educational material.
He explained that the licenses for digital texts were acquired through Cares law funds at a cost of $ 12.9 million for daily use by students and teachers of all grades. He added that with this material, teachers can “create interactive activities with students, design more dynamic classes and expand knowledge using appropriate textbooks.”
From this Monday, the DE will begin to send the Students’ Academic Progress Report via email, and in five days they expect to have completed the delivery.
The designated secretary – who must go through the confirmation process in the Senate – spoke about the handling of lunches, an issue that raised complaints in the previous semester. He noted that all school canteens keep inventories up to date in order to provide service.
“As of January 11, the lunch delivery service will be resumed in schools. Recently, it was authorized to continue in the Grab and Go modality (servicarro type) until summer 2021. The list of people to receive food from one up to 18 years of age was expanded. They don’t have to be students of the system, “said Aponte Santos. He added that since the adjustments made by the pandemic, 2,884,923 lunches have been delivered in the dining rooms.
In the past semester, the counseling and psychological help service in the DE was also expanded. Aponte Santos assured that federal and state funds have been identified for hiring psychologists for each of the schools. “Their work (of psychologists) is integrated into the effort made by social workers, as well as nurses that each school has as part of its staff. Each time a situation is identified by families, principals, teachers or school personnel, the team of professionals is activated to support students and their families. In addition, we reinforce the importance of detecting or addressing crisis situations through the DE’s social networks, with messages and guidance that serve our families and know how and where to seek the necessary help, “he added.