After Hurricanes, USVI Residents Choose Hope

After three devastating hurricanes struck the Caribbean, the Department of Education undertook a series of actions to support the U.S. Virgin Islands through their recovery process. As part of that effort, ED staff committed to travelling to the Islands to provide resources, assistance, and expertise.

In November, as the ED team began their descent into the Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, the large-scale devastation left by Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria became alarmingly clear. Once lushly green, the landscape had turned muddy and brown. Roads were washed out entirely; buildings were roofless or pushed off their foundations; parts of the islands were left in total darkness. Businesses — the lifeblood of an economy so reliant on tourism — were shuttered.

The team, which included Iyauta Green (Risk Management Service), Joy Medley (Office of School Support and Rural Programs), and Mark Robinson (Risk Management Service), then began a five day trip to assess the damage that the storms had left behind.

They also spoke with administrators — including private school headmasters — teachers, students, and staff at the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE) administration, including Commissioner Sharon McCollum. From them, ED staff learned about the many needs facing the Islands and their students.

The storms hadn’t just created immediate, physical interruptions. They’d also halted progress toward a larger priority for the USVI: to diversify the workforce. Dr. McCollum had long wanted to keep the local economy competitive, and was concerned about students leaving the island — and taking their skills and talents with them. Instead, post-hurricanes, nearly 10 percent of students had left the USVI to continue, or finish, their education.

And students still on the Islands were required to adapt to a “new normal.” Many school buildings were either closed or operating on split schedules. At Ulla Muller Elementary School on St. Thomas, children ate FEMA packets instead of hot lunches.

Read more about the ED team’s visits to the U.S. Virgin Islands at Medium…

 

To Rebuild, Rethink and Renew

This past fall I had the opportunity to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, twice — first, in October, and two weeks later, in the company of Secretary DeVos. There, I saw firsthand the wholesale destruction left by back-to-back hurricanes. The experience was both humbling and uplifting.

During my first visit, I joined the Commissioner of Education for the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dr. Sharon McCollum, on a car trip around the Islands. On our way, she noticed the owner of a damaged wholesale club store — he was outside, combing through inventory, trying to salvage any goods that Hurricanes Maria and Irma had spared.

Pausing our scheduled tour, Dr. McCollum stopped the car in front of the store. She began negotiating the sale of cleaning supplies to be used in some of the many schools under her care. Simply getting students physically back to school is a monumental undertaking, she said: they shouldn’t have to fear getting sick from mold and the like once they’ve returned to the classroom.

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“The Spirit is There”


“When can I go back to school?”

When that experience is disrupted, getting back to school can mean everything to students. And the adults who care for them — parents, educators and civic leaders — feel a special urgency.

For our fellow Americans in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, including more than 410,000 students in grades K-12, the 2017 hurricane season severely disrupted those reliable routines. First Irma hit, leaving more than one million people — nearly a third of the population on an island the size of Connecticut — without power. Two weeks later, María followed: one meteorologist likened its impact to a tornado, 50 miles wide, cutting a path of devastation through cities, towns and countryside.

In a three-week period, I travelled twice to visit Puerto Rico — the second time with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

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