Without exploring creative ways to ensure the education to the nearly 300,000 students in the public system, the Department of Education seems far from its constitutional obligation by deciding to give all students passing grades without ensuring academic achievement.
For the third time in less than three years, a new emergency disrupts the learning process for thousands of students and the agency lacks the administrative preparation, public policy, and training that would give the necessary flexibility to respond.
Faced with these deficiencies, the decision, unilateral and premature, opens up another space for the criticism that public opinion has directed at the government, which has not been able to adjust its structures and processes to the multiple challenges posed by an emergency of these proportions.
The lack of government proactivity, particularly in the Department of Education, is not new. After the January earthquakes, active or retired teachers took the initiative to establish makeshift classrooms, mostly outdoors, as a way to keep students busy and learning while the agency remained trapped in indecision and bureaucracy.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, schools in southern municipalities remained closed after the January seismic events.
Schools are not just spaces where students learn subjects. They are also socialization, therapy, shelter, guidance, and nutrition spaces for most of the population living in poverty and inequality.
Despite this, the Education Department has not designed safe and efficient ways to provide these students with the necessary food, financed with federal funds, through the school meals program. Current nutrition initiatives do not necessarily reach all the students in need.
With the new decision to advance the end of the semester, the State virtually ends up turning its back on thousands of students. And this inaction, for parents´ impotence, is above the millions of resources immediately available. Both the Financial Oversight and Management Board and Washington Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González have pointed out the absence of creative solutions to address such an important need.
The public agency with the largest budget in Puerto Rico expresses its complacency by announcing it abandoned its mission as good news. But at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, the Department of Education has not been able to carry out the urgent mission of updating its technology to meet the needs of distance education. This means that students with socio-economic disadvantages are being left behind.
Neither does the agency facilitate the collaboration of other sectors that have shown the creative capacity that the moment requires at a cultural level. Faced with this situation,it opts for the easiest response, which is to close the school year.
After the hurricanes and earthquakes that hit the island, community education projects were successful in keeping children and young people away from the free time that makes them easy prey for the underworld. Neighbors, teachers, and assistants were key in relieving traumas associated with those disasters.
In these dramatic circumstances, the island pays an unjust and painful price for the historic political clientelism that, without distinguishing administrations or political colors, has sunk a key department for the future of Puerto Rico into bureaucracy and misgovernment.
However, it's never too late to set things right. Today, the Department of Education has the opportunity to call broad sectors, together with school communities' components, to explore other safe ways to be present and support our children and their families who need that more than ever in this critical time.