No one could have imagined what happened in March of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted nearly all aspects of 21st-century life. Among the areas of society most affected by the pandemic, schooling worldwide suffered tremendous shocks. Despite the global health crisis, however, at Nuestra Escuela, we were and continue to be ready to do what we do best: listening to our community and doing everything in our power to guarantee a quality alternative education for our students and families. Through natural disasters, economic turmoil, and public health crises, Nuestra Escuela has organized its community to better understand its needs and find alternatives to address them together. As a community-based organization, we maintain our responsiveness and flexibility thanks to the sustained support of organizations and individuals who trust in Our Mission of Love and understand the commitment that characterizes our efforts to support the education of children, teens, and adults from marginalized communities in Puerto Rico.
According to a report recently published by UNICEF, 1 in 7 children worldwide lost a year or more of schooling due to COVID-19 and the lockdown measures that ensued. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the figure becomes even more startling, where 3 out of 5 children in the region interrupted their studies for over a year. Naturally, COVID-19 presented significant obstacles to our community. About half of our students live in rural communities, and an overwhelming majority of them come from low-income families with little to no access to the internet and other digital technologies. Yet, we could not allow these challenges to handicap our services. Aware of the role schools play in children’s development and the importance of maintaining meaningful relationships during times of hardship, Nuestra Escuela moved to galvanize the support of the philanthropic sector and raised over $100,000 to purchase 158 electronic devices for students. This effort allowed Nuestra Escuela to be online and virtually in-session only three business days following government-mandated school closures. By purchasing laptops, tablets, and personal hotspots, Nuestra Escuela gave its students and families the resources needed to attend school and work remotely.
Because the effects of the pandemic were varied, our response to the crisis had to be holistic. First, we adapted our teaching and learning model to provide quality alternative education services to students, despite being online. Second, we supported the families of our students and personnel affected by the economic shocks of the pandemic by distributing over 357,840 pounds (162,313 kilograms) of food supplies. To this day, Nuestra Escuela continues to donate groceries to families in need. Third, our biopsychosocial support staff (composed of social workers and psychologists) maintained contact with our students and remained available for those in need of our support. Fourth, we maintained the totality of our personnel on the school’s payroll and were thus able to provide stability to our employees and their families at a time where everything seemed uncertain. Finally, the pandemic did not stop us from holding our yearly graduation ceremony. Although we could not hug each other as always, our students were able to wear their graduation regalia, receive their diplomas, and celebrate this important milestone (at a safe distance, of course).
Parallel to our virtual learning efforts, Nuestra Escuela has leveraged all public and private sources of funding at its disposal to adapt its facilities to an eventual return to in-person schooling. Among our investments, we have installed acrylic dividers in all classrooms and office spaces, rearranged all classrooms to maintain appropriate distance, installed air-purifiers in all air-conditioned areas, developed health and safety protocols for students and personnel, installed disinfecting stations in every room, facilitated employee access to vaccines, and much more. Yes, returning to in-person schooling is important. Still, as we attempt to open our doors to our students, our top priority is to ensure that our community is and feels safe from the virus when at Nuestra Escuela.
Our work is not over. We continue to look for ways to ensure student safety when they return to school next term. However, as we look back and reflect on the past year, we cannot help but feel grateful for the support we received from GlobalGiving and so many other organizations and individuals that make our vital work possible. We also feel hopeful, for our close relationship with our communities has allowed us to remain nimble. We will continue to lean on close relationship with those we serve, and we that this closeness will lead our way out of this pandemic and toward a better future. The pandemic is not over, but time and time again, we learn that taking care of each other is key. It always has been.