The most devastating storm in Puerto Rico’s history, Hurricane Maria, blasted the island relentlessly in September 2017, destroying roads, leveling homes, and causing wide-spread electricity blackouts. The schools were not spared as education came to an abrupt halt for thousands of students.
Jorge Bauzo, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, was teaching Spanish and U.S. history at Chipley High School in the rural Florida Panhandle near the Alabama border. He also taught for the Florida Virtual School, which provided online classes. Bauzo closely followed news of the hurricane’s destruction, and when the winds finally subsided, he wanted to help. In his words:
The Florida governor, Rick Scott, actually opened a window for any Puerto Rican student – up to 20,000 Puerto Rican students – that wanted to use the Florida Virtual School System without tuition. I called the [Panhandle Area Educational Consortium] and said I know that a lot of students will start taking classes online; I know the teachers need to know the culture. I want to help because I know that you’re going to need teachers like me who know the culture. And after that, I was blessed, because I was helping out.
Bauzo faced challenges beyond teaching a curriculum. For example, with regular Florida distance-learning students, Bauzo would do a 10-minute welcome phone call. But with the typical Puerto Rican student who was dislocated by Hurricane Maria, Bauzo spent more than one hour to answer the student’s questions. The concerns included whether online classes taught through Florida Virtual School were valid; whether these classes will apply toward graduation in Puerto Rico; and whether prior Puerto Rican classes would apply toward graduation should the student remain in Florida.
The hurricane created obstacles for students just in accessing instruction. “Puerto Rico’s students were walking a mile to a shopping mall, because the shopping mall had Wi-Fi. “They were trying to contact me,” Bauzo said. “You can’t imagine: It was so sad listening to these kids crying, begging for help. You know, during the dark, anybody that has a flashlight is a leader.”
Governor Scott’s program has ended, and, Bauzo explained, students in Puerto Rico who want to continue their Florida Virtual School classes must pay a fee. But many of the students need additional time, Bauzo said. “During the process, when I was teaching, I needed to give the [Puerto Rican] students more flexibility than a student that’s here because, for example, they lost the [electrical] power, and the last time I talked with them was five days ago, and they have to wait to get the power back.”
Bauzo believes that the hurricane taught an important lesson about the value of online instruction. “The people didn’t know the importance [of distance learning], I think, until now, especially here in Florida, of the things that happened in Puerto Rico, because these things can happen to any other state. An earthquake can happen in California. Distance learning can help now. If a hurricane hits in Florida, the system can help those students that don’t have a school to go to. And now we are actually understanding the importance, in my opinion, of distance learning in the future.”
Joe Barison is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Outreach.
Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. Check back on Thursdays for new posts in the series. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.