Battered by hurricanes, the pandemic, and all the normal wear and tear children cause, public schools in the Virgin Islands go through a lot. While some challenges are unpredictable, others could be met and mitigated by better assessments, planning, and accountability, according to a new report from the Virgin Islands Board of Education.
The Board’s annual report found a myriad of specific and systematic facilities issues in the territory’s public primary schools, junior highs, and high schools. Better data is needed on what needs to be done, what it will cost, a clear timeline, and thorough tracking of the repairs’ progress is needed, according to the report issued July 1. The Board also asked for better inter-agency support.
“Principals forwarded repair requests to the maintenance division with no ability to track progress or estimate completion date,” according to the 179-page report. The Department of Education is supposed to hire and direct contractors, but the school administrators are unsure if they are supervising the progress. They often don’t even know when contractors are scheduled to work, the report says.
The report is not about the state of public education in the territory, according to the Board, but an assessment based on available data and Board walkthroughs of the facilities. It depends, in large part, on information collected from other agencies. Missing information, some of it from the Education Department itself — such as dropout rates for 2021-2022 — made the report incomplete and not representative of the true school conditions, according to the authors.
“The reports submitted to the VIBE are systemically and historically deficient and do not reflect a true and accurate assessment of our public school facilities within the context of their jurisdictional authority. All public school facilities throughout the Virgin Islands are in varying stages of disrepair. Given the age of our schools and the decades of inconsistent maintenance practice, process, and progress, the territory must realistically reimagine its public school facilities,” reads page two of the report.
The Health Department’s Environmental Health Division and the Child Care and Regulatory Services office provided reports on most school sites but not all. The Board also said Fire Service reports were missing or incomplete and entirely missing for the St. Thomas/St. John school district.
Some of the problems outlined in the report include lack of adequate storage, fire safety hazards, leaks, lighting problems, and emergency lighting problems, and the need for deep cleaning.
“The issues requiring attention include replacing ceiling tiles, restroom faucets, toilets, and kitchen equipment (including walk-in coolers and freezers), painting, landscaping, light fixtures, air conditioner maintenance and storage, roof leaks, electrical repairs, and carpentry,” the report reads.
Some of the issues seemed relatively easy fixes, such as providing stools for young students to stand on while washing their hands. Other issues, like mold, can be difficult and expensive fixes if not addressed right away. Still, other problems seem like basic elements of a place where 5-year-olds run around. St. Croix’s Lew Muckle Elementary School needed first aid kits and covers over electrical outlets to prevent shocks, according to the report. Ricardo Richards school needed these covers, too, as well as measures to prevent rodent infestation, it said. Inspectors found pest breeding sites in an upstairs storeroom. Claude O. Markoe school, offering classes for pre-kindergarteners through Grade 6, lacked smoke detectors and had an outdated fire extinguisher.
St. Croix Central High School and St. Croix Educational Complex High School had numerous fire safety issues when reviewed in April, as well as leaky pipes, missing electrical covers, inoperable doors, and outdated equipment that caused potential smoke and flooding problems, the report stated.
The pattern of disrepair continued in the St. Thomas/St. John district with schools lacking proper hot water for hand washing, first aid kits, and window screens when inspected in 2021. The schools faced rodent infestations, unsafe food preparation areas, improper disposal of garbage, and a crack in the roof of Joseph Gomez Elementary School so prominent that the sun was shining through.
“Roof leaks sunlight coming through,” the report reads.
Not all the Board’s areas of concern were physical.
The Education Department represented the Virgin Islands Virtual Academy as a pilot program to fill teacher shortages and meet the needs of students not able to attend in-person classes, according to the report. But the department never told the Board that VIVA would be permanent and hasn’t addressed some original concerns.
First, the Board thought VIVA was a program, not a school. The department, however, hired administrators, a counselor, and other specialized staff for VIVA as if it were a virtual stand-alone school, the report authors said.
The Board was also concerned VIVA wasn’t collecting student information and performance correctly or collaborating with the students’ normal in-person school. The Board wants VIVA principals’ and counselors’ year-end reports for both districts, information regarding students who regained access to their home school schedule upon completion of a semester in the VIVA program or before the end of the year, a copy of the department’s observations on VIVA performance, copies and results of student and parent opinion surveys, evaluations of all VIVA teacher data that confirms compliance with existing curriculum and standards, and more.
The Board recommends the Virgin Islands Legislature amend laws and adequately fund schools making them more secure, safe, and better educational opportunities for students. They want better-maintained school grounds, environmental monitoring, and better inter-agency communication and support. The Board also wants to be the entity responsible for the opening and closing of schools, including emergency shut down or permanent site closures.