Influx of students from Puerto Rico after hurricane putting strain on system

BOSTON — Hurricane Maria destroyed most everything in Puerto Rico, including the island’s schools.

By one estimate, up to 300,000 children will head north to the U.S. mainland to get an education over the next two years.

Hundreds of children have arrived in Massachusetts so far, and it’s putting a strain on school systems that are already stretched thin.

Orlando Rios Guzman just relocated to Lawrence with his two daughters.

Twelve-year-old Coralyz will be enrolling in the seventh grade and nine-year-old Leyshka will enter the fourth grade.

On the eve of their first day, they were all nervous about this big change.

Through an interpreter, he said he was concerned about the language barrier and about whether they  would feel comfortable in new schools.

Guzman and the girls are staying in an apartment with relatives.

He made the trip because he was concerned the entire school year would be lost and the girls were not getting any education.

As American citizens, children from Puerto Rico have the right to move to any state and enroll in public school.

Since the hurricane, almost a thousand children have come to Massachusetts schools.

The districts seeing the biggest spikes in enrollment are Boston, Holyoke, Lawrence, Springfield, and Worcester.

Worcester school superintendent Maureen Binienda said the biggest financial challenge so for far is associated with translating Individual Education Plans of special education students which were all delivered in Spanish.  About two-thirds of the students from Puerto Rico in Worcester are special needs students.

Right now, Binienda said the district has absorbed about 170 children without too much of a problem, but she’s watching the situation closely.

“If we continue to receive students at the rate we have in the last couple of weeks, we will probably need some funding to add additional teachers," Binienda said. "We have certain regulations set for us by the union contract on how many students can be in a class.”

Helping these communities should be a priority for the state before it becomes a full-blown crisis, according to Keri Rodrigues of Massachusetts Parents United.

“In addition to wanting to set them up for educational success, we need to emotionally support these kids who have just gone thru one of the most traumatic experiences of their entire lives.  Everything has been ripped away from them," Rodrigues said.

Even though it has been more than two months since Hurricane Maria did just that, the island exodus could just be getting underway.

“When you have folks that are low income, it takes some time and resources to actually make sure that you have the money to buy those plane tickets, to bring your family over from the island to those communities,” explained Rodrigues.

A spokesperson from The Department of Elementary and Secondary tells they’re tracking students from both Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands as they enroll in public schools.  Based on those numbers, the administration will request additional money from the legislature to help communities deal with increased costs.