Hurricanes Irma, Maria disrupt schools in Florida, Puerto Rico

Michelle Healy

This year’s devastating hurricane season forced thousands of displaced students into new school homes. In response, school districts rolled out the welcome mat and put in protocols to assist the students and their families. 

The influx of students from Puerto Rico was expected to be sizable. “Experts are saying we could see as many as 100,000 Puerto Rican transplants to Florida,” but no one knows exactly how that will translate into school-age children, says Scott Howat, chief of communications for Florida’s Orange County Public Schools.

A month after Hurricane Maria slammed into the Caribbean, 680 hurricane evacuees (462 from Puerto Rico and 218 from the U.S. Virgin Islands) had enrolled in Orange County. Those numbers were expected to grow, Howat says.

The same week, Miami-Dade Public Schools, in the southern part of the state, reported welcoming 294 hurricane evacuees, including 266 from Puerto Rico. Nearby Broward County Public Schools enrolled 267 students displaced either locally or abroad due to recent natural disasters.

In an interview with CBS TV, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho predicted that Orange County and Miami-Dade would be the two key points of reception for student arrivals. “This will be the new Ellis Island for Puerto Rico,” he said.

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in the U.S. Virgin Islands and then in Puerto Rico, districts throughout Florida were still recovering from the battering of Hurricane Irma earlier in the month. Schools were shuttered. Those buildings not damaged and with electricity often served as shelters for in-state evacuees.

To help evacuees from the U.S. Territories displaced by Maria, Florida state officials waived rules for hurricane evacuees so they could enroll in schools without immunization records, proof of residency, and transcripts.

Miami-Dade officials also initiated conversations with Puerto Rico’s Department of Education about the alignment of standards and curriculum to ensure a smooth student transition, says Jackie Calzadilla, the district’s media relations director. “We will provide students with any support that will enable them to integrate into their new school’s student body.”

The New York City Department of Education also waived requirements for an evacuee’s documentation that may have been lost or destroyed. At a joint press conference with the mayor’s office, Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said the nation’s largest school district had surveyed principals about available space and had identified areas of the city most likely to have an influx of students and to be the best equipped for a potential language barrier.

Those able to make their way from Puerto Rico joined an exodus well underway before the recent hurricane damage. 

As a result, “a glut of teachers were out of work,” says Elena Cala, spokesperson for New York’s Buffalo Public Schools. When the district’s human resources director went to the island last spring to recruit teachers, she returned with nine, a valuable addition for a district increasingly in need of experienced, bilingual teachers. 

Throughout Florida, school districts were working closely with state and federal lawmakers to secure additional funding to accommodate students from the islands, many who may come needing language supports, counseling services, or special education accommodations. 

The legislative delegation has been “great at advocating for us” as the district dealt with challenges related to the fall enrollment survey, state appropriations, and the anticipated influx of additional students says Orange County’s Howat. 

The school system was one of several agencies that set up shop at the disaster relief center that welcomes evacuees as they arrive at Orlando International Airport. Along with providing families with school enrollment assistance, representatives from the district’s human resources department were happy to discuss job opportunities with the new arrivals. “With 24,000 employees, we have quite a few positions, from teachers to bus operators to food service workers,” Howat says.

Associate Editor Michelle Healy (

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