SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Monday that Puerto Rico will receive nearly $4 billion in federal education pandemic relief funds to help boost the U.S. territory’s fight against COVID-19.
The announcement was made during Cardona’s official three-day trip to Puerto Rico, the first for a Biden administration Cabinet member. It marks the first time the island has full access to those funds.
“The students of Puerto Rico have suffered enough,” he said. “It’s time to get back to school safely and quickly.”
Roughly half of the nearly $4 billion will be released as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law in March to help offset the pandemic’s impact on the economy and public health.
Puerto Rico reopened dozens of public and private schools in March for the first time since the pandemic began, although less than 100 of the island’s more than 850 public schools were authorized to do so. At the time, only kindergarteners, special education students and children in first, second, third and 12th grades were allowed to return to school for in-person classes twice a week. A month later, officials closed all schools given a spike in COVID-19 cases and didn’t reopen some of them until May.
For more than a year, many teachers and students have struggled with ongoing power outages and unreliable or nonexistent internet connections amid virtual learning. Some 24,000 students failed their classes this year, with 13,000 receiving an ‘F’ in all their courses, prompting the island’s Department of Education to hold summer courses to help them with the help of $210 million in previously approved federal funds.
Cardona said that in addition to meeting with Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, he also will meet with students, parents, educators, union leaders and others “to make sure we hear what’s happening and how we can best support…Puerto Rico.”
It wasn’t immediately known exactly how Pierluisi’s administration planned to spend the newest federal funds. The announcement comes three months after Cardona announced that Puerto Rico had immediate access to $912 million in federal education money.
Strict conditions had prevented the U.S. territory from receiving certain federal funds in a timely manner under the Trump administration, but these have been easing under U.S. President Joe Biden.
The island of 3.3 million people has reported nearly 123,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 2,000 COVID-19 deaths. More than 40% of the population has been vaccinated.