SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s government on Monday was granted access to more than $900 million in federal education funds less than two weeks after reopening dozens of public and private schools for the first time since the pandemic began.
The $912 million is available immediately, but the U.S. Department of Education will work with Puerto Rico officials to identify how the money would be used to address the academic, social, emotional and mental health needs of students in the U.S. territory, according to a spokeswoman for Jenniffer González, the island’s congressional representative.
Further details, including whether the money could be used to buy things including computers or face masks, were not immediately available. Officials with Puerto Rico's education department did not return a message for comment.
The money comes as Puerto Rico struggles to recover and rebuild from the 2017 hurricanes Irma and Maria and a string of strong earthquakes that began in late 2019 and destroyed or damaged dozens of schools in the island’s southern region. Then the pandemic hit, forcing hundreds of private and public schools to close for nearly a year as teachers and students alike struggled with power outages and spotty or nonexistent internet connections amid virtual learning.
“Our students have been through too much,” said Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. “They deserve a semblance of normalcy.”
Pierluisi authorized the reopening of certain public and private schools this month to some students, but scarce attendance was reported amid fears of contagion as less than 100 of Puerto Rico’s 858 public schools reopened nearly two weeks ago for the first time in a year. For now, only kindergarteners, special education students and children in first, second, third and 12th grades are allowed to return to school. They attend in-person classes only twice a week and are dismissed before noon.
The release of federal education funds comes as Puerto Rico pursues a new relationship with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, with local officials hopeful that funding delays common under the former Trump administration will dissipate.
“The department understands the urgency to access vital federal education funds to meet the needs of Puerto Rican students who are experiencing compounded trauma,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.