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Students in Puerto Rico live with the trauma of many natural disasters

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The students in Puerto Rico head back to school this week. Teachers and staff find that years of natural disasters on the island have taken a toll on learning and mental health. Kavitha Cardoza reports.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: When I met Deishangelxa Galarza last fall, she was a fifth grader in the southern Puerto Rican town of Salinas. During heavy rains a few weeks before, her family's ground floor apartment flooded.

DEISHANGELXA NUEZ GALARZA: (Through interpreter) My mother was sad because we lost everything.

CARDOZA: Her school was also closed while staff cleaned out a foot of muddy water from classrooms. Deishangelxa missed two weeks of classes, which upset her.

DEISHANGELXA: (Through interpreter) One day, I want to be a nurse. School is very important to me.

CARDOZA: Those floods were just the latest interruption to her education and her life because of natural disasters. For many Puerto Ricans, compounded trauma lingers. Some children cry when a passing truck makes the ground vibrate. It reminds them of an earthquake. Some become distracted in class at the slightest sound of raindrops. Others hide food in their pockets and socks. One resident calls this collective island PTSD.

YIRIA MUNIZ: I was thinking, how long have we been going through different events?

CARDOZA: That's teacher Yiria Muniz.

MUNIZ: So I made a list from Maria on.

CARDOZA: That's Hurricane Maria in 2017. Beginning in 2019, there were a series of earthquakes - in 2020, COVID. Finally, in 2021, in-person schooling resumed. But the next year, Hurricane Fiona unleashed a furious attack on the island. Schools shut again. When we spoke last fall, Muniz was worried for her students.

MUNIZ: It's nonstop since 2017. If you think about my seventh graders right now, they've been going through this since second grade. So they have missed, you know, many skills that they have not developed - social, academic, behavioral, emotional.

CARDOZA: A recent study found more than a quarter of students needed help because of an emotional, mental or behavioral situation.

DINELYS RODRIGUEZ: Boston, Harvard.

(LAUGHTER)

CARDOZA: Fourteen-year-old Dinelys Rodriguez and her 11-year-old brother, Jadniel, are all bright eyes and braces. Both have recently started worrying about how all the school they've missed will affect their futures. Dinelys wants to be a lawyer.

DINELYS: (Through interpreter) It worries me a lot. I feel desperation. I want to study. I want to be someone in life.

CARDOZA: Her anxiety is about more than academics. Dinelys remembers having to wait in line for hours for groceries. Now every time there's a storm, she worries she won't have enough to eat. Jadniel says he's always on alert.

JADNIEL: (Through interpreter) I can't study right now because I'm worried. Who's going to study through something like that?

CARDOZA: Yadira Sanchez (ph) has been a school psychologist on the island for more than 20 years. She tells of a boy in the eighth grade now who is reading and writing like a second grader, around the level he was at when Hurricane Maria hit the island.

YADIRA SANCHEZ: He has a girl he likes, and she sends a text. And he's asking the teacher to read the text for him. What do we do with those students who are not reading, whose self-esteem gets affected as well, and they want to drop out of school because they get frustrated.

CARDOZA: There are efforts to help those students. Over the past two years, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has signed off on $6 billion in federal money for the island's school system. Some of that has been used to hire hundreds of school nurses and psychologists, also to reimburse overdue payments for hundreds of evaluations and therapy sessions. But even Cardona says progress has been limited. The students and educators I talked to agreed.

JORGE LUIS COLON GONZALEZ: Right here is the most visible damage.

CARDOZA: Deishangelxa's principal, Jorge Luis Colon Gonzalez, points out cracks in the concrete from earthquakes that hit the school building a few years before the flooding. Colon says students and teachers are still recovering emotionally.

COLON GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) They had symptoms of anxiety.

CARDOZA: Not only does Colon encourage students and teachers to speak to the school psychologist, he sometimes confides in her as well. He grew up poor in a nearby town and says education was his way out. It's a path he fervently wants for his students, and he's more determined than ever.

COLON GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) I will never, never, never give up. I will always be looking for strategies.

CARDOZA: For NPR News, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Salinas, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kavitha Cardoza