Schools prepare for Puerto Rican student refugees

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School districts throughout Tampa Bay are preparing for an influx of students as families flee the devastation in Puerto Rico and, in many cases, settle in Florida.

In both Hillsborough and Pasco County, letters have gone out to school leaders guiding them on how to handle students who left Puerto Rico after parts of the U.S. territory were destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

"Our goal is to enroll them into our schools on the same day that they arrive to our schools," said Tanya Arja, a spokesperson for Hillsborough County Schools. "We know that they've already lost a lot of their education in just the last couple weeks since Hurricane Maria. We want them to get back on track. So we want to make sure that they come in, that they feel welcome, that they're going to be successful in our schools and they know that they have a safe place to go to."

A lot of refugees have lost everything, including paperwork such as birth certificates, school records, and immunization histories. Administrators could face challenges making sure students are placed in the correct grades.

In Pasco County, the district instructed school leaders that, by law, children must be allowed to enroll immediately with or without paperwork. The letter also indicated the Florida Department of Health is working with authorities in Puerto Rico to try to gain access to students' immunization records.

Families who have loved ones in Puerto Rico feel it's crucial to get kids back on track as soon as possible.

"[It's important] to have them feel welcomed because it's going to be hard for them already to readjust to a new environment," said Evelyn Martin, who expects family members, including about 25 nieces and nephews, to move to Tampa Bay and New York. "Teachers need to keep in mind, 'okay, I really have to concentrate on making the student individually feel welcomed. That's so important."

"That's going to be rough because of the language barrier," added Nilsa Henry Garcia, who owns Nilsa's Puerto Rican Bistro in Tampa and has loved ones in Puerto Rico. "It's going to be very tragic [to have to leave everything behind], especially for a child. An adult, it's easier to deal with that situation, but a child it's going to be very difficult."

Since Hurricane Maria, the Hillsborough County school district has already enrolled 19 students from Puerto Rico and nine from the U.S. Virgin Islands.