Boston Public Schools officials expect families to begin arriving here from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico as early as next week and are preparing to take in students in classrooms across the city.
Superintendent Tommy Chang met Thursday with city and school officials, principals, health professionals, and community organizations to discuss how to handle the potential influx of students.
“Making sure everybody is aware of all the other resources that exist in the city, making sure it’s coordinated, that’s the challenge,” Chang said at the meeting, held at the school system’s Roxbury headquarters. “Today is just the start. Our goals will be to coordinate communication first. That’s key, to get all the resources in one place and then start building up these one-stop shops for families.”
Chang says he doesn’t have a clear sense of how many families and students might be coming to the Boston area. But the devastating effect of Hurricane Maria, which ripped through Puerto Rico and left the island’s population with little food, water, or fuel, is already being felt in the city’s schools.
“We already have teachers who are Puerto Rican who are affected. We have students, many, many, many students and families, who are impacted,” said Farah Assiraj, director of organizing with the Boston Teachers Union. “So it is an issue that I think we have to take a lead on. What are the support systems that are in-house to support those who are already here?”
Around the room, local professionals discussed the need for more Spanish-speaking staff, warm clothes at welcome centers around Boston, and school supplies, transportation, documentation, access to mental health services for children and adults, and the need for emergency shelters for displaced families.
For those arriving in New England from the Caribbean, it isn’t simply about being displaced from their homes, Assiraj said. Families will be undergoing a cultural shift as they assimilate into their new surroundings and wrestle with potential language barriers.
Sonia Gomez-Banrey, director of BPS’s Countdown to Kindergarten, is coordinating efforts with other local community organizations to help. Puerto Rican herself, Gomez-Banrey has been trying to get her mother to the United States since Hurricane Maria made landfall.
“I have a conversation with my mom every day at 6 a.m.,” Gomez-Banrey said. “Our last conversation was at 6 a.m. on the day of the hurricane.”
Her mother lives by herself on a farm in the eastern central region of the island. She’s heard that the land, once rich with fruit trees, was nearly completely stripped of vegetation.
“There’s nothing left, not even a leaf,” Gomez-Banrey said. “It’s really hard trying to get her here. We can’t send her anything. Right before the hurricane, I sent her a box of supplies. That’s still in New Jersey.”
State officials have offered assistance to those on the ground in Puerto Rico, as well.
On Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker spoke to Governor Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico and offered to provide any and all assistance at the island’s request, according to Elizabeth Guyton, the governor’s communications director.
“The Baker-Polito administration will continue to monitor the relief efforts in Puerto Rico, and stands ready to deliver any assistance possible,” Baker said in a statement.
In turn, Rosselló emphasized the importance of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, the nationwide system that all states and territories use to coordinate assistance in the wake of natural disasters.
The governor’s office in Puerto Rico has requested that all in-kind donations of items and to the island be stopped for the time being. Receiving such donations requires spending time sorting and organizing instead of focusing on search-and-rescue efforts. The city of Boston has posted a resource page for those searching for loved ones on the island or looking for ways to volunteer to help hurricane victims.
“With such a strong Puerto Rican community here in Boston, you can’t help but lose sleep over the families facing this unbelievable devastation,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement. “We will welcome those in need with open arms and have already started planning for any transitions into schools, housing, and behavioral and physical health programs.”
Chang expects to waive certain BPS policies to expedite the process of getting students into schools. One example is the home-based assignment system, which decides which school a student is assigned to based on where they live.
“If we’re really, truly committed to making sure kids get into a school where there is a seat and there’s available room, we might need to go beyond the home-based system,” Chang said. “And thus also provide transportation outside of a home-based system. So those are our policies I will have to immediately change in the short term.”
The situation is similar to when hundreds of families from New Orleans traveled to Boston after Hurricane Katrina or when Haitians left Port-au-Prince following the earthquake in 2010, according to Courtney Grey, director of disaster behavioral health at the Boston Public Health Commission. “We’re going to expect that people will need to get primary care providers, housing, of course the school reassignment, and all the immunizations associated with that,” Grey said. “I don’t think we’re wanting for what we might need to serve these folks. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to be very rigorous around how we plan.”