During the “Parts Unknown” episode Bourdain and teacher Liza Fournier Córdova eat what they affectionately refer to as “grandma food.” They discuss the economic crisis and its effect on education. Córdova talks passionately about her work, her family, and her determination to stay in Puerto Rico despite its problems. After the storm, Córdova shares what day-to-day life has been like, and what the future looks like for the schools on the island.
A few days after the hurricane, the teachers from the school where Liza Fournier Córdova works began clearing trees with machetes, picking up trash and debris, cleaning classrooms, and painting. Thanks to their efforts, the building is slated to reopen in the next few days, but because there’s still no electricity, instead of a school, it will function as a place where parents can bring their children for a few hours each day. Córdova says she hasn’t been told when the schools will have power, allowing classes to start.
Despite the fact that they cannot begin the semester as they should and that it will be hard to take care of children without basic services, Córdova wants the kids back in the school as soon as possible.
“The teachers are going to save the day as always,” she says. “Once we start teaching, we are going to teach as always—with resources, without resources, with water, without water, whatever. But that’s when we start teaching. I can’t do anything until the region gives me permission to start teaching.”
In the make-shift day care the children will at least be able to get out of the house, play, and talk to each other about what they’ve been through. Students call Córdova every day asking when they can start attending class.
At most schools around the island, educators helped clear debris to make it possible for the buildings to reopen. After weeks working to make their schools safe again, they also started assisting neighbors with their FEMA paperwork and delivering food to areas where government agencies hadn’t yet reached. “In the macro, that might not be a lot, but if there are a lot of people like me doing little stuff around the island, that counts,” says Córdova.
Despite all this voluntary work, most schools still don’t have water or electricity, and classes can’t begin until those issues are resolved.
Students had only been back from summer break for a month when Hurricane Irma hit. It was the first to impact Puerto Rico. Córdova plans to be more concise with her lesson plans in order to make up some of the lost time. It’s likely that classes are going to run only until noon for the rest of the calendar year, due to a lack of power both in schools and in homes. This schedule will allow time for children to do homework and have dinner before the sun sets. Plans for the rest of the school year are still being discussed.
Córdova comes from a family of teachers and wanted to contribute to the education of her nation. “Everything starts in a classroom. A teacher transforms and impacts lives,” she says. She has been working at Escuela Félix Córdova Dávila for the last 18 years.
In her hometown of Ciales a month after Hurricane Maria, Córdova has to stand in line to go to the supermarket. There was no water or any kind of meat available in the first few days after the storm. Two weeks passed before help began arriving to the mountain town, which is one of the most devastated communities on the island. Two bridges were washed out by the river, and whole neighborhoods were hit with up to 8 feet of water. People lost everything they owned, and some homes were obliterated. Córdova is grateful that she didn’t lose her house, but she is tired. Her spirits are high—her desire to help others motivates her to keep going—but her body is tired.
The education system on the island is divided by region, each of which makes decisions independently. The region of San Juan (the metropolitan area) and Mayaguez (in the west of the island) were supposed to start classes in the last week of September. At the time of publication, they still had not opened.
Twenty-five to 30 students out of about 300 at Córdova’s school have left Puerto Rico for Florida and other states in the continental U.S. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have left the island in the past two weeks, and it’s estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 more will leave annually due to the devastation wreaked by the hurricane.
Even before the current crisis, the education system was already in a state of decline due to the economic crisis. Córdova told Anthony Bourdain that the Department of Education has closed 240 schools in the past two years. Hurricane Maria may help determine which schools are shut down—many that suffered damage are not going to reopen. Some will be consolidated, and students will be forced to go to schools farther away from home, says Córdova.
Although Córdova has the opportunity to leave for the continental U.S.—she has family in Chicago and a son in Delaware—she will remain. She has a son that is a senior in high school and another graduating from the university. She doesn’t want to leave; she has a lot to offer Puerto Rico. Since the hurricane, Córdova has been volunteering in her community every afternoon, distributing water, food, diapers, and milk to people she knows have the need for it. Helping people fill out FEMA papers has been a constant chore.
Despite everything, she remains hopeful about the future of public education in Puerto Rico.