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COO awed by Puerto Rico's storm damage, desire to resume education (Photo gallery)





District Chief Operating Officer Patrick Zohn flew to Puerto Rico on Sunday to help reopen schools, and he quickly learned two things: The job is massive and the island’s desire to restart education is powerful.

Zohn is part of an eight-member team assembled by the Council of the Great City Schools. At the council's expense, the team will spend a week evaluating whether buildings pummeled by Hurricane Maria in late September are sound; they also will help officials get a grip on how to deal with those that are usable.

Upon arriving, Zohn was greeted by conditions that he described as “otherworldly.”

Photos courtesy of Patrick Zohn

Though the schools are made of concrete, aluminum roofs and siding were sheared off. Rain pierced paint with bullet-like force, and the water pooled in bulging sacs. The lush island’s trees have been stripped of their leaves, utility poles were snapped, debris is piled everywhere.

“The pictures on CNN and the Weather Channel – it’s cliché, but they don’t do justice to the reality,” Zohn said.

The Council of the Great City Schools team met with Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, and Secretary of Education Julia Keleher.

Zohn said he was told that about 500 of more than 1,100 schools are back in operation. The team will split into two crews and hustle to inspect as many idled buildings as it can.

Puerto Rico’s electric grid is in shambles. Zohn is staying in a hotel that gets power from a generator kept running from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

But the island’s people are eager to see children’s classes resume, even if a school is without electricity, Zohn said. He said he is impressed with what he called a testament to their interest in education.

“If a building is structurally sound, they’d like to open it,” Zohn said. “They say, ‘We don’t have power at home, so what’s the difference? At least you would start learning again.”

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