WASHINGTON—More than 18 months after the U.S. Virgin Islands were hammered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the water and sewage systems on the Island of St. Croix remain only marginally functional on most days.
Rosa Soto-Thomas, president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers, said this is causing chronic, ongoing problems for schools, students and teachers. “I have lost track of the number of water and sewer service interruptions that have caused schools to repeatedly close on St. Croix,” she said.
Water pressure is subpar throughout the system, and that means that water distribution to public school buildings and campuses is interrupted or falls short of service levels necessary for normal school operations. In addition, the water coming out of school fountains and faucets is often “rusty”—indicating possible contamination.
“It is no secret that the infrastructure of our public schools needs to be upgraded to meet the demands of the 21st century,” Soto-Thomas said.
The St. Croix teachers union is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, which has been active in recovery efforts since the 2017 hurricanes, including providing school supplies, water filters, clothing and other essential items to teachers, students and families across the U.S. Virgin Islands. Next month, nurses and other health professional members of the AFT will provide a second round of health screenings to school students, following up on a first deployment to the islands last summer.
“Since hurricanes Irma and Maria, students in St. Croix are still going to schools in terrible condition, lacking clean and safe drinking water and functional sewage systems,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Schools are supposed to be safe havens for kids, and state and federal officials have a responsibility to look out for the children of the U.S. Virgin Islands, not leave them in toxic, contaminated school buildings. Teachers can’t teach and kids can’t learn in this environment, and it’s clear that these schools need immediate federal help. This disaster should never have gotten this bad.”
Although most schools are equipped with cisterns to collect fresh water, none of those cisterns has been cleaned since Irma and Maria struck. So this alternative solution is not viable because so many cisterns are littered with dead creatures and debris, Soto-Thomas said.
“This means that the basic and essential resource of water is not reliably available in far too many schools,” she said. “This is an alarming situation for island communities that are surrounded by water.”
So far, after all this time, Soto-Thomas said, the local board of education has remained silent in the face of the crisis.
“When the U.S. Virgin Islands territorial Department of Education going to get a handle on this critical situation? Who is going to clean our school cisterns and make them usable as this crisis continues?” Soto-Thomas asked. “And when will there be a plan in place to bring immediate relief to our St. Croix educators and the students they serve?”
She called on local, territorial and federal officials to take action that will end the water and sewer problems plaguing communities and schools across St. Croix.
“We cannot continue to open our schools each morning and turn a blind eye to the unsanitary conditions of their bathrooms, cafeterias and cisterns,” Soto-Thomas said. “The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Education, the board of education, Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the territorial Departments of Health and of Planning and Natural Resources must collaborate and fast-track a plan for an immediate solution.
“Failure to do so,” Soto-Thomas said, “is prolonging an unhealthy situation that is inviting an epidemic.”
At least one member of the territorial Legislature has appealed to U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert A. Bryan to call in the National Guard to make safe water available and assist with other problems in the public water system that communities and their schools rely on daily.
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