Earthquake Shakes Up Educational Status Quo in Puerto Rico
by Dave Dentel • March 17, 2020
Lynnette Fuentes had already begun questioning whether public education was the best option for her children, when a major earthquake struck Puerto Rico, causing widespread damage and sending the school system into turmoil.
Though hundreds of quakes have rocked the Caribbean island since December, the January temblor was severe enough to prompt Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez to close all of the US territory’s schools until they could be inspected for safety.
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Suddenly, like thousands of other parents in Puerto Rico, Lynette was faced with a major decision.
With schools predicted to remain closed for at least several weeks, Lynette said, “I didn’t want my kids to fall behind.”
So she decided to homeschool.
Time of Crisis
Lynette’s dilemma presaged what parents around the globe are now grappling with due to the new coronavirus. In either case, unforeseen crises have forced more moms and dads to shoulder the full responsibility of keeping their children engaged and learning—at home, without the aid of onsite instructors and administrators.
Home School Legal Defense Association has monitored the situation and taken action to meet the needs of these parents.
Early this year, for example, we noticed a spike in visitors to our Puerto Rico webpage. A surge in inquiries from island families confirmed that interest in homeschooling was increasing, so HSLDA President Mike Smith sent an email clarifying homeschool law and offering help to parents who encounter difficulties while establishing a home education program.
Hundreds of Calls
Nydia Villanueva, who leads a homeschool group of about 26 families, said Smith’s message made a major difference. She explained that in the weeks following the big earthquake, she received hundreds of phone calls from concerned parents who wanted to know more about homeschooling.
They asked where to find books and curriculum and how to comply with a panoply of requirements that school officials said parents had to fulfill before homeschooling legally.
“School officials in Puerto Rico have been making it difficult for some to meet the withdrawal requirement by making families attend orientations, requiring them to make appointments with social workers and district officials, and show proof of curriculum before giving them their withdrawal letter,” Nydia told HSLDA Bilingual Consultant Marialena Zachariah. “At times, officials have even implied that failure to do all this could lead to an accusation of child neglect.”
She added: “The HSLDA notification from President Smith was like a balm on the wounds of these families facing so much opposition. Families have been printing out Mr. Smith’s statement to take with them to the public school when they request withdrawal.”
HSLDA has also provided legal advocacy for parents such as Lynette.
Her situation was complicated by the fact that, though she is determined to homeschool, she wanted to continue special needs services for her son in 2nd grade—which is her legal right.
“This has been very challenging,” she said.
When she submitted her notice withdrawing her children from their public school and establishing a private school in her home, officials responded with a barrage of questions.
“They asked what kinds of qualifications I have to be a teacher, what kind of curriculum I’m using,” Lynette recalled. She was told she needed an evaluation and orientation and that her kids needed to take end-of-year tests.
None of these demands, however, comply with Puerto Rico law.
No Going Back
Despite these bureaucratic obstacles, Lynette said her experience so far has convinced her that homeschooling is the right choice for her children.
Her daughter, who had failed to find public school kindergarten challenging, is now thriving.
“I’m teaching her at her own pace,” said Lynette.
Her son has also shown improvement.
“He’s doing great,” she added.
And with homeschool support groups available, as well as HSLDA’s advocacy, “I feel at peace now,” Lynette insisted. “I feel like I’m not facing this alone.”
According to Nydia, Lynette’s sentiments are not unique.
Even though three-quarters of Puerto Rico’s public schools have been declared as safe to reopen, it seems many parents have decided to continue homeschooling.
“About seven families are in the process of joining our group,” Nydia said. And she’s urging many other families to stay connected and consider joining when the new school year begins at the end of summer.
Meanwhile, Nydia continues to reflect on her own homeschool journey, which also started in part as a means of helping her son cope with his special needs.
The process has included many struggles to procure services. But ultimately, she knows that—as so many parents around the globe have been recently reminded—at home she is best equipped to provide for one particular, fundamental need. She can keep her son safe.
Sample letter of withdrawal from public school in Puerto Rico (in Spanish)
Need help homeschooling in Puerto Rico? HSLDA Compassion is accepting grant applications to assist with curriculum and other homeschooling needs. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request an application.
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