On Friday the governor’s office announced it had eliminated red tape and fees to help displaced Puerto Rican teachers find jobs in the state.
Among those who were hired is Aileen Villanueva, a 36-year-old Spanish teacher who had spent weeks at her home in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, without running water or electricity, but with a dire concern for her family’s health. She landed in Fort Lauderdale on October 3, heard about the district hiring drive, and headed to the Orlando airport the next day.
Villanueva had long dreamed of moving to the mainland for a better life, but when Hurricane Maria devastated the island, she felt she had no choice but to finally make her move. Her community had been torn apart, and their food supply—an assortment of salty canned goods—was taking a toll on her husband, who has kidney disease.
The seventh-grade Spanish teacher left behind a 12-year career with the island’s education department. When she landed in Florida, however, she didn’t expect all the pieces of her new life to come together so quickly. “It was really fast,” Villanueva told The 74. “My family is like, ‘Wow, that was really fast, you don’t mess around, girl.’”
Williams said another educator arrived at the Orlando airport with 12 family members, including several children. Up to that point, they were in survival mode. The woman hadn’t even yet thought about how to enroll her children in school. When she left the airport, she had a plan for her kids and a job teaching at an Orlando elementary school.
Teaching positions aren’t the only jobs the district is hoping to fill at the airport, Williams said. There are also openings for paraprofessionals and bookkeepers, and Villanueva said her husband, Jose, may apply to work as a district custodian.
“Watching the process is touching because you could tell, they were like, ‘Thank you, thank you. There is so much help here that when we leave here today, I think we’ll be okay,’” Williams said.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in all Florida counties on October 2 in response to Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic impact, opening disaster relief centers at the Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport, and the Port of Miami to help Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm. The school district was joined by officials from other state agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities of Central Florida.
Orlando is among East Coast cities from Florida to Massachusetts where officials expect thousands of new students after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on September 20. Fleeing the island has been difficult, but displaced students have already begun to arrive—and as more families score plane tickets, school leaders expect the influx to multiply.
So far, the Orlando district has enrolled 292 new students from Puerto Rico, up from 104 at the end of last week. Additionally, the district has enrolled 92 new students from the storm-struck Virgin Islands. And although they aren’t to that point yet, Williams said the district may need to hire even more teachers to handle the increase.