Connecticut Schools Prepare For Hurricane Maria Refugees

Sep 29, 2017

Connecticut is preparing for an influx of refugees, as residents of devastated Puerto Rico begin to leave the island after Hurricane Maria.

Lea esta historia en español. / Read this story in Spanish.

Something like this has happened before. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Waterbury Public Schools took in a few of the displaced.

Because of Waterbury’s ties to Albania, the number of new students fleeing disaster was higher in 1998 when refugees left Europe due to the Kosovo War.

But there are 11,000 Hispanic students in Waterbury, so according to Bob Brenker, Chief Operating Officer of Waterbury Public Schools, the city is about to experience an influx of new students at a rate never before seen.

“How many are bilingual?” Brenker said. “How many need support? We have counselors ready to go. But it’s just the unknown. We don’t know what number, [or] when they’ll arrive, but we want to be ready for that first one who walks into our doors.”

While those seeking refuge are welcome, the district might not have the resources to nurture them after dealing with trauma -- especially on short notice. These kids might be homeless and unaccompanied by their parents. So the schools will also need to do food and coat drives to provide basic needs. Brenker’s team had a planning meeting earlier this week.

“We want to be ready for one student every grade,” Brenker said. “If we have that process ready, then we can expand it.”

Governor Dannel Malloy addressed the situation on Wednesday, but he too was unable to anticipate the scope of that impact on the local economy -- especially in the absence of a budget.

“Those communities that have large Puerto Rican populations, I think, are already taking that into consideration,” Malloy said. “How we then resolve that, not knowing the size of the issue, so, there’s no way to resolve an issue you don’t know the size of.”

Nancy Serra is New Britain's Superintendent and she is looking to the state for help in properly welcoming new students.
Credit Frankie Graziano / WNPR

The Central School District of New Britain has 1,000 Puerto-Rican born students, including 755 that attend New Britain High School.

District Superintendent Nancy Serra said that New Britain prides itself on having reduced its average class size to 21. But that will have to change.

“We just put out in an email earlier in the week requesting that all principals look at rooms that are not being used as classrooms right now as potential classrooms,” Serra said.

Serra said she’ll request that other nearby towns with smaller class sizes step up and take students too.

“While New Britain will rally, and we will take in any family that comes, Connecticut needs to rally,” Serra said. “And that means neighboring towns -- close to families potentially -- let’s erase those lines for now.”

The state sent a guide to each district about how to deal with the potential influx. And it encouraged towns to apply for federal aid for each student under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.