Educational Challenges in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Written by Aoibhínn Kiely

The U.S. Virgin Islands are situated in the Caribbean Sea, located some 64 to 80 kilometres east of Puerto Rico. The region consists of three larger islands, St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, and approximately 50 smaller cays and islets, amassing a total area of 133 square miles. Due to the inviting climate, the U.S. Virgin Islands attracts a large number of tourists each year, however tourism is one of the region’s only economic resources, and financial aid and funding is provided by the United States.

The region is at risk for hurricanes, with an average of 5 passing the region yearly, and in September of 2017 the territory sustained extreme damage from a barrage of two Category 5 hurricanes within the span of two weeks. Irma and Maria together destroyed virtually all crops of St Croix and an estimated 90% of buildings in the territory were destroyed or severely damaged.

Education in the U.S. Virgin Islands is compulsory and government-run schools operate for free. The Virgin Islands Department of Education runs 21 elementary schools, six middle schools and six high schools between two school districts spread between the three main islands. The territory also sports one university, The University of the Virgin Islands, a public liberal arts based university. 

However, a great number of students attend private schools, and most of the families who relocate to the U.S. Virgin Islands opt to send their children to private or religious affiliated schools, who also charge a tuition fee. Educational challenges in the U.S. Virgin Islands are characterised by poor funding, staff shortages, and struggling infrastructure, causing huge barriers to adequate education for the working class population of the islands.

Unsafe working (and learning) conditions

The vast majority of those who relocate to the U.S. Virgin Islands will decide to send their children to a private school to receive their education. With the Peter Gruber International Academy, situated on St. Thomas, requiring annual tuition ranging from $13,150 to $21,000 excluding materials and accreditation fees, it is starkly obvious that this option is not for everyone. However, given the state of current affairs in public schools, there is no doubt as to why parents would go out of pocket to avoid their children attending the region’s public schools.

In September 2023, teachers across St. Croix walked out of their classrooms in protest, claiming that the conditions they are expected to work in are untenable and entirely unsafe. The protesting teachers mention not only the long-standing issues of underfunding for the schools, but also sweltering temperatures that have to be endured in classrooms, many of which have no clean drinking water. This region, famous for its balmy temperatures, has schools operating without air conditioning. The response to this protest has been to implement schedule adjustments, enforcing earlier dismissal and shortened class periods for the schools on St. Croix. In effect, poor funding has caused policy makers to opt for less schooling hours as opposed to providing adequate equipment to the schools.

Teachers are not the only individuals enraged by these conditions, as students took to the streets in protest of the unsafe conditions they are expected to learn and grow under. Students from two historically rivalling highschools put their differences aside as they called for immediate action from leaders. Devastating heat and lack of air conditioning were only the tip of the iceberg for these students, as placards being held high mentioned termites, mould, leaking ceilings, and other structural ailments concerned with the physical school buildings. Further prompting the action was the stark lack of funding for equipment and maintenance workers.

School facilities in the U.S. Virgin Islands have sustained damage not only from the hurricanes in 2017, but also many in the 90s and less severe instances in 2021 and 2022. As a result the infrastructure must constantly be repaired and seen to, which these students believe is not being upheld on the side of maintenance due to exceedingly poor funding. One of the schools in which the students came from, Educational Complex High School, is used as a hurricane shelter, which the students reiterated, poor maintenance is not only an educational disadvantage but a genuine health and safety hazard for those living on the island. The students stood in unison demanding answers to where the large budgets dedicated to the Department of Education have been going, and hoping together that their action will spare future students on St. Croix from the conditions they have to currently endure.

Where have all the teachers gone?

Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington, commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education cannot stress enough the risk that classrooms will not be filled when the 2023/2024 school year begins. With learning deficiencies in the region presenting themselves as a challenge at present, the 127 teachers reaching retirement age represent a looming loss to the educational system on the islands and a concerning prospect for the students.

The school year 2022/2023 saw 33 teachers separate themselves from the department, expanding the 43 pre-existing teaching vacancies in the region. The strategy being employed by the department in an attempt to tackle this growing issue that has been used for years, to try to recruit teachers from outside the territory to fill the gaps. The Department has been driven to launch a special appeal to recruit degree holders and retired teachers to fill substitute teacher positions.

The situation remains dire however with Wells-Hedrington informing lawmakers last year that nearly 200 teachers and support staff retired or resigned from the already struggling public school education system between June 2022 and August 2022. Furthermore, the number of non-certified professionals working in the public schools on the Islands far outnumber those certified, with only 228 certified professionals in comparison to 610 non-certified professionals.  Emmanuella Perez-Cassius, the Board of Educations Vice Chairwoman, is adamant that educators need to receive higher pay, consistent curriculum mandates and better working conditions.

A storm of mental distress

The Board of Educations Vice Chairwoman further remarked that schools are sorely lacking formal trauma and mental health alert systems for children who need aid with serious issues. The Islands align with national data, indicating that children in America are in the midst of a mental health crisis. St. Croix Foundation reported in 2021 that 22.5% of middle schoolers had “seriously considered suicide” and 33.5% of high school students “felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks that they stopped doing some usual activities”. As this data was collected in the aftermath of the aforementioned hurricanes, it was seen as a cry for help and a call to action for the community of the Islands, with special emphasis on the education system to support children struggling in the region.

In July 2023 Perez-Cassius made it clear that schools are not up to date with critical information that can protect children from a mental health crisis. As a result she called for direct and ongoing communication between the Department of Education and Department of Health, as well as other organisations concerning treatments, school services, and awareness for students with escalating mental health concerns.

The Vice Chairwoman additionally called for the implementation of training on trauma based interventions and approaches. Studies have suggested that students on the islands experience PTSD at a significantly higher level than the general population, and a lack of intervention from the education system is an unfortunate shortfall that devastatingly lets students, and teachers alike, down.

Leadership for change

Although there is no absence of challenges faced by those pursuing education through the system in the U.S. Virgin Islands, these very individuals have shown resilience and perseverance time and time again in the face of challenges. The bravery of the protesting teachers and the voices of strong leaders such as Perez-Cassius and Dr.  Wells-Hedrington are not going unseen and unheard as attention is being drawn to these areas of concern.

Furthermore, the children in the region have stepped up and shown that they will no longer allow for unsafe conditions to be tolerated. These students have shown responsibility and dedication in a way that no child should ever have to. Their passion and drive through their protests and their demands of lawmakers have made waves in their communities and it will be impossible for those in power to ignore their rightly placed rage.  After the terror of Irma and Maria the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands have worked hard to rebuild themselves and their education system, demonstrations of strength that will stand to the region with any hope.


Cover Image by MChe Lee via Unsplash

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