YABUCOA, PUERTO RICO — Silence reigns on the basketball court of Ramón Quiñones Medina High School at the start of the school year. There are no shouts from students practicing sports like basketball or volleyball. There are no deafening whistles from teachers calling out defensive fouls, no thuds of sneakers running this way and that, no echoes of balls ricocheting off the ground.
At midday, recess time, when students used to get together to play sports, the voices, yelling and applause of classmates who would relish watching and encouraging their teams have now disappeared.
While the requirement may still stand — as it does for all schools in Puerto Rico — to provide physical education classes five days a week, Ramón Quiñones Medina High School has gone six years and counting mired in this silence. Its students are supposed to spend one hour per day on physical education, but the nearly 300 young people who attend this school each year have been without formal instruction in basketball, volleyball, indoor soccer and even track and field since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. When the storm swept through the school’s basketball court, it severely damaged its columns, beams and roofing.
Before Hurricane Maria, this school, the newest in the municipality, had optimum sports facilities: an indoor basketball court; spacious physical education classrooms with air conditioning; comfortable bleachers; permanent basketball hoops; posts for setting up nets; bathrooms with showers; and lockers for storing sports clothing and equipment.
Now, more than half a decade after the hurricane, access to the gym has been cut off due to the danger the facilities still pose. The roof is caving in and rusted, and weeds are invading the interior. Students have yet to return to their regular physical education and sports schedules, which has wrenched them away from a past in which they won multiple championships and competitions, such as the 2015 Criollos de Caguas High School Baseball Cup. The current school year began with no victories in regional track-and-field and volleyball competitions.
Yerimar Rivera Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico
Students are frustrated at not being able to exercise and take physical education classes in what was once the best facility among the municipality’s public schools. Their sadness and agitation are visible. Their motivation has dissipated as the facilities have deteriorated and authorities have failed to resolve the problem.
“I feel unhappy because I can’t practice my favorite sport,” says a ninth grade student, referring to basketball. Like other students interviewed for this article, he asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation at the school.
He is not the only one who feels this way. Another classmate also expressed frustration and demanded action to resolve the problem, saying he “would like [the authorities] to fix the facilities to practice track and field,” a sport in which he used to compete at the regional level for his previous school.
Today, these students must settle for receiving physical education classes in smaller classrooms not designed for such instruction. The learning dynamic has transformed into one more heavily based on theory, with less hands-on practice. The physical fitness tests required to pass each grade level are carried out in the same small classrooms. To compensate for the lack of exercise at school, “the current teacher told us to practice sports at home,” a 13-year-old student says.
Student identity and sense of belonging at risk
Several mothers have expressed concern about the delay in repairs. Sherline Judith Navarro López says she feels “somewhat sad” seeing how much it has impacted her son. “I feel overwhelmed,” she says in a mixture of Spanish and English. Her son had been advised to attend Ramón Quiñones Medina High School for its basketball facilities. “The court is terrible. It’s been ruined since [Hurricane] Maria, and they haven’t done anything. And they’re not going to do anything,” she says sorrowfully.
The discontent reaches as far as the school’s recently retired teachers, who struggled themselves with the lack of sports facilities during the past six years. Mildred Feliciano, a former math teacher, says the sense of belonging and community has been disrupted.
“The facility was the heart of our school because it was where we used to celebrate. At midday, we teachers were even able to stop worrying about our students a bit because we knew the vast majority of them were participating in intramurals,” she says, referring to friendly matches in different sports. “They would sit by the court to watch, or they’d compete with their friends.”
Felicita Matos and Jeannette Flores, also recently retired teachers, agree that the school’s strength and appeal used to be the activities held in the basketball court: end-of-year recitals, the weeklong celebration of Puertorriqueñidad (Puerto Rican identity), Christmas lighting festivities and parties to honor the Day of the Student, with bounce houses and fun activities that often fused entertainment and cultural heritage. Since the gym was damaged, these activities have either occurred on a smaller scale or not at all.
The outlook is equally grim at Rosa Costa Valdivieso Middle School, which lost its basketball hoops and the roof over its basketball court to Hurricane Maria.
However, the surface of the court was left in good condition, and the space has been equipped with portable basketball hoops for recreational and educational use. The downside is that, because it is now open to the elements, extreme weather like the heat Puerto Rico experiences at the start of every school year and intense rainfall between May and November forces the school to suspend its physical education classes.
The structural repairs and maintenance for these schools are under the purview of the Puerto Rico Department of Education. However, the Humacao region’s Public Buildings Authority carries them out. PBA serves 127 schools in 16 municipalities, including Yabucoa, handling the inspection, quoting, bidding and contracts for the structural needs of the buildings assigned to it.
The procedure to repair the schools’ sports facilities should have begun after Hurricane Maria hit, by filing a claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for providing funding for reconstruction following natural disasters.
Silence from the authorities
Global Press Journal made multiple attempts to obtain responses from physical education teachers, school authorities, the Department of Education, the PBA and the interim regional superintendent of Humacao’s regional education office, Evelyn del Moral Rosario, but received no response.
One PBA official — who spoke anonymously out of fear of retaliation in the workplace for not being authorized to speak with the press — says the athletic facility at Rosa Costa Valdivieso Middle School was not claimed by PBA because the agency did not build it. Instead, it falls to Yabucoa municipality to resolve the issue. The municipality alleges that the reclamation and reconstruction are not its responsibility because it has no authority over that infrastructure. Pedro A. Crespo Ortiz, director of the Yabucoa Finance Office, says they have provided “multiple [forms of] help to these schools, despite it being the responsibility of the Department of Education.”
The PBA official says that the basketball court at Ramón Quiñones Medina High School is in the process of being allocated funding and repairs. But he also allows that the process has been slow and bureaucratic, and there is no date for when such repairs will begin.
Yerimar Rivera Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico
Meanwhile, Edwin Morales, vice president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, a teachers’ federation, says systematic failures to prevent, manage and resolve these cases are the result of a deficient educational model.
“We have seen, as part of an agenda, deterioration in the selection and quality of what is taught via the implementation of standardized education,” Morales says. He believes there is a plan to “degrade or reduce those subjects that are of interest to our students,” such as athletics and the arts.
Students and retired teachers alike say training for competition at the school has taken a blow in recent years. The lack of facilities has caused “a drop in victories in school sports competitions at the municipal, regional and national levels,” Matos says. Despite all this, students are holding fast to their desires and say they will not lose hope that the facilities will be repaired. They dream of the day when they can once again compete and shine in their favorite sports.