The freezing of $390 million in federal funds allocated to Puerto Rico through the CARES Act to assist the Education Department in providing students with the opportunity to study in the new scenario triggered by the COVID-19, calls the local government to urgently address the requirements of U.S. Education authorities.
The funds that have been recently withheld join the $650 million package that the federal government has kept frozen since last year after administrative inefficiencies were detected in the agency's Federal Affairs Office. The order came weeks before federal allegations of corruption against former Education Secretary Julia Keleher came to light.
The condition for releasing the funds is that the local Education Department must hire an agent - a sort of trustee - to ensure the proper use of the resources, a process that remains incomplete. The requirement dates back to last summer, but it was not until October that the agency began the process. It took six more months, until last April, for the state government to inform the selection of a consultancy firm to negotiate the contract.
Governor Wanda Vázquez asked U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to reconsider the freezing of those funds. All the island´s sectors and the diaspora should join the claim so that students are not affected.
Along with this effort, which must be responded with an open dialogue by the federal government, the governor must ensure that her administration complies with the conditions for the disbursement and use of federal funds.
In her letter, the governor stresses that students in Puerto Rico have suffered two hurricanes, have seen their schools collapse due to a series of earthquakes, and have now experienced the anxiety and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These emergencies have affected their academic performance and interrupted the normal flow of the learning process. Now, because of the pandemic and the Department of Education´s deficient response, the semester has again been abruptly interrupted, undermining students' opportunities for development.
Vulnerable students have been adequately provided with the nutritious meals for which the federal government provides funding.
As long as these funds remain withheld by the federal government, the nearly 300,000 students in the public system will be subjected to months of neglect, hoping that classes restart in August. We must ensure that, by then, schools are in good condition so that children can study without being infected and without infecting their older relatives with the coronavirus when they return home.
Human rights, as well as the well-being and future of the children are trapped amid requirements and administrative procedures. Withholding federal funds infringes the right to education, which in Puerto Rico is a constitutional provision since it is a real development tool that can help 60 percent of our children who today live in poverty.
It is urgent to maintain close communication with federal authorities to address their requirements while responsibly speeding up the process to complete, for the benefit of Puerto Rico, the trustee contract.
Once the funds are finally released, the education system must be updated so that schools are safe spaces for children, who also need the appropriate technology to continue their online learning in times of emergency.