ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Thousands of Puerto Rican children displaced by Hurricane Maria are expected to enroll in Florida and other U.S. public schools this year.
Most of the island’s 1,112 public schools are closed due to hurricane damage, and schools throughout Florida are preparing for the possibility that thousands of new students will come, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Ten-year-old Samiliz Ruiz Collazo and her 14-year-old brother Mizraim arrived in central Florida on Friday, and immediately commented on the electric lights lit over their heads. It was something they hadn’t seen in almost a month.
Their home’s water cistern had been ripped off the roof by the storm, and they had no power. So their parents sent the children from Puerto Rico to stay with their grandmother, who lives in Deltona in Volusia County.
She bought cases of Malta India, their favorite Puerto Rican soft drink, to help them feel at home.
“I feel pretty calm,” said Beatriz Rodriguez, the grandmother. “They can be one month, two months without their parents, because they’re used to spending summers with me.”
Volusia County public schools’ spokeswoman Nancy Wait says the county overestimated the number of students they would receive, so she expects that they’ll have plenty of space.
In central Florida alone, 292 students have enrolled in Orange County, and 150 in two other area counties.
“We know it’s traumatic. . we’ll do whatever we need to do to make sure they get in a classroom as soon as possible,” Wait told the newspaper.
The students from Puerto Rico will also be classified by Volusia County as homeless, meaning they won’t have to show birth certificates, immunization records and can qualify for free lunches and other programs.
Julia Keleher, the island’s education secretary, says only 167 Puerto Rican schools are open to students at the moment, so they have been working with U.S. districts in Florida and elsewhere to help support the displaced children.
“We’ll do our part, we’re going to share that responsibility until the dust settles,” Keleher said.