Two months after tearing through Puerto Rico, the effects of Hurricane Maria continue to be felt here in Florida.
Still facing massive power outages and the devastation to other infrastructure, nearly 200,000 people have come to Florida from Puerto Rico and the exodus is expected to continue with no end in sight.
The influx of hurricane victims into Florida includes many school-aged children. So far, 8,500 students from the Caribbean have enrolled in the state’s public schools–1,300 have enrolled in the past week alone–most of them from Puerto Rico.
“We do anticipate that there will be more students that will be coming as individuals are able to leave Puerto Rico,” Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said at meeting of the state Board of Education held earlier this week.
While school districts in South Florida–Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach–have taken in nearly 1,700 new students, the largest impact has been felt in Central Florida along the I-4 corridor. Sixty-one percent of the students who have evacuated from the Caribbean have enrolled in public schools in those counties.
Orange County public schools leads the list enrolling more than 2,200 students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, while Osceola County follows with over 2,000.
“That’s like three schools,” State Board of Education member Gary Chartrand said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Do we have the facilities?”
Stewart told board members Florida has the space to accommodate the 0.2 percent increase in statewide enrollment.
While the unexpected increase in enrollment is likely putting a strain on the resources of some school districts, none have reached the mark set by the state to trigger additional funding to cover the cost of the increase in the number of students.
The Department of Education announced in October that any district that experienced a five percent increase in enrollment as the result of Hurricane Maria would receive additional funding to cover the cost of the new students. So far, Osceola County has seen the largest percentage increase in student enrollment and it’s only been a jump of about two percent.
But, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association says the cost of caring for these evacuees goes beyond the academic costs.
“Many of the students need emotional and social services as well,” said Andrea Messina. “The increased cost of these services we have not yet seen a final tally on. Our school districts have done an amazing job at welcoming and accommodating the students, including recruiting many teachers and other support employees who have also left Puerto Rico.”