In the past decade, Puerto Rico has seen over 10 percent of their population leave for Florida and other parts of the U.S. mainland due to a deep economic crisis. This number is expected to spike as Tampa Bay area schools prepare for an influx of displaced students from Puerto Rico in the ongoing aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
On Monday, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency to provide assistance for displaced migrants who are fleeing Puerto Rico. Local school districts are working to abide by his mission to make the transition for those emigrating as easy as possible.
Hillsborough County's school district is welcoming new students with open arms, according to their website. The county has the second largest population of Puerto Rican residents in the state, with 35 percent of its students being Hispanic. Hillsborough County Public Schools spokesperson Tanya Arja says they’ve got a lot of Spanish programs available to students.
“We have our (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programs… and in a couple of our schools in the Town ’N Country area, we have started a new dual-language immersion program, which teaches students both in English and in Spanish,” said Arja.
The Hillsborough school district also has about 27,000 vacant seats available, which can offset the effect incoming students will have on the classrooms and resources.
Every principal for the Hillsborough County district was sent a list of guidelines that advised them on how to manage and welcome new students who are fleeing disaster-ridden areas. These guidelines include services to make sure students get proper immunizations and check-ups and setting up extra support systems within the school, such as counseling.
Pasco County public schools will be giving the displaced students the same treatment as they would homeless students in order to make the transition easier, as well as setting them up with a student-in-transition program that will provide them with further assistance.
“They would qualify for admission without having to have their immunization records, their birth certificate or their student records from their previous school,” said Linda Cobbe, spokesperson for Pasco County schools.
Lisa Wolf, the public information officer for the Pinellas County school district, stated in an email that, although they haven’t yet seen an influx of students who identify themselves as coming from Puerto Rico, the district is prepared to welcome students and support them in any way they need.
That sentiment is echoed by the Hillsborough County school district.
“We are here and ready to welcome these students that have been displaced by disaster,” said Arja. “We want to make sure that the students are successful and that they don’t lose any more of the education that they have already had to lose because of the storm.”
In a few weeks, Florida districts are responsible for sending a head count of students to the state, which uses that information to determine the amount of funding the district gets. Some question whether the deadline will be flexible or extended because of the uncertainty of how many students will be migrating to the local Tampa Bay region.
“I don’t believe all decisions have been made, but we certainly would advocate for extending that deadline if at all possible,” said Cobbe.
Arja says they’ve had 19 students from Puerto Rico and nine students from the U.S. Virgin Islands enroll in their district since Hurricane Maria.
“We don’t know how many more we will expect and part of that is because we don’t know how many families will be coming to Hillsborough county,” said Arja, adding that they are ready for them.