Thousands of Puerto Rico teachers protest for higher wages

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Thousands of teachers across Puerto Rico left their classrooms and took to the streets on Friday to demand higher wages, improved working conditions and better pensions amid an economic crisis.

Several schools were completely void of teachers as protesters gathered in the capital of San Juan and other cities including Mayaguez and Aguada and marched, clapped and banged on pots while supporters honked their horns as they drove past.

“We are tired, tired of not being recognized,” said Joalice Santiago, a 34-year-old who teaches Spanish and science to fourth and fifth graders. “It’s about time that teachers rise up and explain to the world the value of their profession.”

She said she tutors after school to boost her salary and that many teachers in Puerto Rico are forced to work two or three jobs to make ends meet as the cost of food, power and water increases as the island struggles to emerge from bankruptcy and tries to recover from Hurricane Maria and a spate of strong earthquakes.

The protest is the biggest one so far this week, with Puerto Rico’s Department of Education announcing on Thursday that some 5,000 teachers, or about 25% of those working in public schools, were absent. On Friday, officials said more than 70% of teachers were absent. Alexis Ramos, an education department spokesman, said no official was immediately available for comment.

The protests come just days after a federal control board that is overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances and the U.S. territory’s exit from bankruptcy approved a fiscal plan that contains salary increases for teachers and other public employees. Teachers would see an average increase of 27% compared with what they made in fiscal year 2019. They would receive half that increase on July 1, with the other half tied to them finishing a payroll and attendance system and providing for student attendance keeping.

Puerto Rico’s Association of Teachers rejected the move, saying it only increases base salaries to $2,220 a month instead of the $3,500 it is requesting.

“Bankruptcy cannot continue to be used as an excuse,” the association said. “Teachers do not want to be rendered invisible any more nor offered any more crumbs, but rather a concrete solution that provides them with a better quality of life.”

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said his administration respects the right to freedom of expression and promised that his administration is still working to secure even higher increases for all public servants.

“This fight has not ended,” he said, but warned that certain responsibilities cannot be ignored. “Our students more than ever need the guarantee of adequate face-to-face education, and for this, they need their teachers in the classroom.”

Santiago said teachers at her school earlier this week protested before the school bell would ring, but that on Friday, all of them closed their classrooms to join the protest with the director’s backing. She noted that many teachers across the island also are forced to paint their own classrooms or buy fans because the government does not provide sufficient resources.

“It’s hard,” she said. “The governor has a lot to think about…a lot to do.”

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