Back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria caused extensive damage to the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John in September 2017. Five schools on the islands were closed as a result, and many books and supplies were lost.
In June 2018, Carol Callwood, the president of the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers, an AFT local, spoke at a UFT Delegate Assembly about the continuing plight of teachers and students on the islands. Although some schools have reopened, she said, other teachers continue to teach in portable classrooms. Overcrowding has also caused difficult teaching and learning conditions.
“Unfortunately, there had not been much attention on the Virgin Islands after the hurricanes,” said Karen Alford, the UFT’s vice president for elementary schools and the chair of the UFT Disaster Relief Fund. “Our Disaster Relief Fund decided we needed to lend our support.”
Thanks to donations to the UFT Disaster Relief Fund and a partnership with NYSUT and the AFT, Alford and UFT President Michael Mulgrew — along with AFT President Randi Weingarten — visited St. Croix and St. Thomas in January to deliver the tote bags filled with school supplies to every teacher in the Virgin Islands. The kits included scissors, tape, highlighters, glue sticks, pencils, dry erase markers, folders, post-it notes, bulletin-board backing paper and other miscellaneous supplies.
“After the storm, donations were pouring in for our students, but things for teachers were hard to come by,” said St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers President Carol Callwood. “It means so much that teachers in New York would provide things that are necessary in the life of a teacher. To get a donation from one of our own, to a teacher from a teacher, we know it comes from the heart.”
The Seafarers International Union also stepped in to help deliver the supplies, since shipping anything from the mainland to the Virgin Islands is extremely costly.
“The teachers were really gracious and so appreciative that people were still thinking about them,” said Alford. “Folks got emotional over the simplest things, like staplers and bulletin-board paper.”The delegation also met with Albert Bryan, the newly elected governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, to discuss environmental conditions inside the schools. Some teachers have reported mold and mildew in their classrooms as a result of damage from the hurricanes.
Alford noted that there are many students and teachers in New York City who have a personal connection to the Caribbean.
“I knew the UFT had to make a commitment to support them, because that’s just who we are as a union,” she said.