Over the past 3 years, due to natural disasters and the pandemic, Puerto Rican students have lost almost a full academic year. There is no clear plan to catch up.
The early ending of the school year in Puerto Rico is the latest blow to students and families who have survived the ravages of natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, the perils of economic catastrophe, and the upheaval over political corruption that led to the ouster of Gov. Ricardo Rosello. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic we look back at 3 years of disruption that have taken an extraordinary toll on the children of Puerto Rico and in essence robbed them of a whole school year.
The Lost School Year
Students in the public school system in Puerto Rico are expected to have 180 days of instruction in a school-year, comparable to what many states in the U.S. require, including Florida which is a frequent destination for Puerto Rican families seeking a better education for their children.
As a result of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, students missed an average of 78 days out of school. The early 2020 earthquakes resulted in an estimated 25 days out of school, although no official statistics have been shared and students in the southern part of the island continued to experience disruptions to their education beyond that.
Now with school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic that started on March 16, students in Puerto Rico are effectively missing an estimated 56 days of school. In total, students on the island have missed an estimated 159 days of continued and stable instruction over the past 3 years, nearly a whole school year.
In addition to the underlying trauma of all of the interruptions of their childhood, this loss of instructional time is devastating, especially when students have a lot of catching up to do.
Failed Quality of Education
Even when providing instructions 180 days a year, public schools in Puerto Rico are failing to provide a comparably good education.
According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), only 1% of 4th graders and 8th graders in Puerto Rico are proficient in math, ranking last, when compared to the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Moreover, their performance in these assessments declined significantly between 2017 and 2019. This matters because reaching the level of proficiency in assessments like NAEP is associated with being ready for and successful in college.
Even the local assessments called in Spanish the Medición y Evaluación para la Transformación Educativa, or META-PR for short, reflect a 30% math proficiency or above for all grades also showed a decline in performance from 2018 to 2019.
Simply put, the public education system in Puerto Rico is failing to challenge and prepare students to perform at their grade level and their performance is getting worse. Plans submitted to the U.S. Department of Education to catch up are unrealistic and not based on substantial changes to teaching practice and learning opportunities.
Little Learning During the Pandemic
When facing the COVID-19 emergency, the Puerto Rico Department of Education has done little to meet student learning needs. When schools closed, students were asked to download and print modules to complete at home, along with the answer sheets, to later turn in to teachers for credit.
This assumed that students would have access to computers, printers, and connectivity, which we can expect to be comparable or worse than the problematic technology access for Latinos and low-income students in the U.S.
In terms of quality, the modules are short and could be completed in a couple of seatings, if the students have the skills and support at home. For instance, the 4th-grade math module has 20 pages with a total of 40 math problems.
In contrast, school districts such as Osceola County in Florida expect their elementary school students to engage in learning 3 hours a day through the end of the school year and have provided resources and opportunities to engage with teachers.
In education both quality and quantity matter. Students in Puerto Rico need their potential honored with a radical plan of action to turn around the persistent and widening academic achievement gaps and deals with the reality that this generation of students has basically lost a year of instruction.