It’s been a year since volunteers from AFT nurses and health professionals traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas to conduct needed hearing and vision screenings for all public school students there. This month, 40 nurses and other health professionals—including respiratory therapists, radiology techs, and speech and language pathologists—returned to the islands and completed more than 8,000 student screenings.
The effort is part of the AFT's comprehensive recovery assistance that we have been providing since two Category 5 hurricanes struck the U.S. territory in September 2017.
“Since the hurricanes, our school nurses have struggled with limited supplies and other support,” says Carol Callwood, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers. “Our members and the national AFT leadership view this situation as a national concern. When our students have difficulty hearing or seeing in the classroom, they can’t learn.”
AFT volunteers returned to the islands to find residents slowly rebuilding because the hurricanes damaged many structures, including schools. According to a report from the U.S. Virgin Islands Hurricane Recovery and Resilience Task Force, hurricanes Irma and Maria damaged or destroyed school buildings and knocked out essential services like power and telecommunications. The storms also affected the lives of students and teachers, some of whom left the islands and did not return for months, if at all. Public school enrollment dropped by 17 percent—from 13,200 to 10,900. The island schools continue to face hurdles, including staff shortages as well as the loss of supplies, materials and equipment.
Laura Iacometta, a retired registered nurse from New Jersey, was a returning volunteer. She was in St. Thomas for her first visit; many of the schools were closed and students were crowded into the few buildings that were useable and attending class on shortened schedules. Now, more than a year later, Iacometta went to St. Croix, and she says the island is recovering. “Some businesses are still closed, but students are back to full schedules in temporary modular school buildings,” says Iacometta, who is a member of Health Professionals and Allied Employees.
For Shamia Moffett, a registered nurse from Connecticut and a member of the Danbury Nurses’ Union, this mission was a first, but she says she would do it again. “There are areas still in need of repair, but there are also parts of the islands that did not look like they had been through storms,” says Moffett, who worked on both St. Croix and St. Thomas. “Most of the schools were OK, although some were a little better off than others,” says Moffett, who recalls working in one school with mold and one that had some problems with electricity.
Moffett estimates her team of healthcare workers saw an average of 600 to 800 students a day. “The screenings are simple and easy, and we were able to move through them pretty fast,” she says. “I was so amazed by the students. They are resilient, well-mannered and respectful.”
Now that the screenings are complete, the next step will be to get eyeglasses and hearing aids for the students in need. The project was supported by a number of partners, including Airlink, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Seafarers International Union, and the U.S. Virgin Islands departments of Education and Health.