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In Puerto Rico, school closings hit families, communities hard



The school system has lost 38,762 students since May of 2017. In a statement, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education said the closings will ensure the government can provide students with the resources they need after the drop in enrollments.

Many families have been fleeing the island for years as Puerto Rico’s economy has worsened. The exodus grew after Hurricane Maria hit the island last September and as families gave up on waiting for the return of electricity, water and other infrastructure.

According to Puerto Rico’s Education Department, half of the island’s schools are at 60 percent capacity.

Some schools already had been shuttered after losing water and electricity that did not return quickly enough after the storm. Some were only open half the day, using the daylight to conduct classes and relying on water that was trucked in or intermittently flowing.

At the same time, Puerto Rico has been locked in a struggle over education as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló proposed reforms and brought in Education Secretary Julia Keleher, who has pushed to bring charter schools and reform the system since her arrival to the island.

That proposal is part of Rossello’s proposed education overhaul that has put him at odds with the teachers’ union, which was highly critical of the school closures on Friday.

‘A massacre,’ says teachers group

“This is a massacre against Puerto Rico’s education,” said Aida Díaz, president of Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Teachers Association), which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

Teachers already have been protesting the island’s education reforms and the school closings added to the discord.

“I know we have been losing population but many of them are coming back and we didn’t even get a chance to pre-enroll for August,” Díaz said.

There has long been need for school reform in Puerto Rico. Most middle-income and upper income residents enroll their children in private or parochial schools; the island’s public schools have largely served lower income children.

But the economic woes have forced some parents to stop paying private school tuition, said Ana María Blanco García, executive director of the Instituto Nueva Escuela, a non-profit that has put Montessori education in 44 public schools in communities throughout the island.

García said closing the schools hits a very vulnerable population. The Puerto Rico public school system still is very rural and many of the schools are small, serving poorer communities that are some distance from urban centers.

Following the hurricane, many schools became community centers and aid distribution sites and shelters. In some communities, parents and neighbors cleaned schools of debris and did repairs, even helping provide food for meals so children could return to classes.


One of the schools on the list for closure is the Inocencio Cintrón Zayas school in the community of Barrancas, in the town of Barranquitas. The school, located by a river, was flooded during the hurricane.

“They want to take the kids to another school … to bus them though a very hard way … and the next school is not in good shape,” García said. “Why do they want to close down a school that is working and is academically one of the best public schools?”

Critics of the government’s plan say that it was done without input from community members and educators.

“Even if the spirit is to decentralize, the methodology has been no participation from teachers, parents or alcaldes, (mayors),” said García.

On Friday, Deputy Education Secretary Eligio Hernández told NBC News the closings will help streamline resources for what he considers an underserved population; 71 percent of the student body lives in poverty.

“We have to reconfigure the system to our current realities,” said Hernández. The plan includes shifting personnel, including teachers as well as office and janitorial staff to schools with a larger number of students.

Hernández said he understands the resistance to the changes, but he thinks communities will eventually understand the benefits.

For parents, more uncertainty

The school that Del Valle’s boys attend currently serves over 100 students. Usually, school children begin pre-enrolling in March, but that didn’t happen this year. Del Valle said she had planned to enroll her son Jariel for high school last March. He finishes middle school in June. But the school was not enrolling students and instead put him on a waiting list.

Now she’s wondering if other schools will have space for her kids. Under Puerto Rico law, parents can choose which school their children attend.

“Now I have to go from place to place to see what schools have space for enrollment and hope they take my kids for the new year,” she said. “Right now the school where my little one was relocated to, he says people say it is in a bad sector and that worries me.”

“The rumors about the closing had been going on, but let’s see what happens now. I hope to God that they don’t actually close the school down. I still have faith.”


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COVID-19: Millions of Indians travel to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela despite rising coronavirus rates | World News



They have gathered in their millions in the temple town of Haridwar, in Uttarakhand.

Hindu pilgrims have come to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that happens once every 12 years.

And today is a very auspicious day in the religious calendar to take a dip in India‘s River Ganges.

Live COVID updates from across the UK and around the world

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
Coronavirus rates have increased in India the last few months, with the country in the midst of a second wave

All this amid a raging pandemic.

The festival has been been flagged as a super spreader as more than 50 million people are expected to attend this month-long event.

The country registered almost 170,000 new cases in the last 24 hours, the highest number of COVID-19 cases anywhere in the world.

With more than 13.5 million cases, India is second only to the United States.

In the same period, 839 people died, taking the total number of COVID-19 related deaths to 170,209.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
Millions will gather this month to celebrate the Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it

Sarasswati Dattani, 56, has travelled over 400 miles (644km) from Rajasthan with her husband.

She tells Sky News: “Our children had tried to stop us because of coronavirus.

“I am not afraid, Mother Ganga is with us all the time.

“People are getting the virus sitting at home. We have to die once, it’s all in God’s hands.”

Raghav, 25, from Jalandhar in Punjab, says “coronavirus could not stop me from my belief in God, our faith is far stronger than anything at the moment.

“I have also come to pray that this pandemic gets over soon.”

The devotees come from every part of the country and a majority are from smaller towns and villages.

The fear among health activists is that rural India will be exposed to the virus.

Speaking to Sky News, Dr Atulya Mishra, who is the medical officer in charge of a section of the banks, said: “People are very irresponsible, they do not follow any of the COVID-19 behaviour protocols.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
Health experts have urged people not to travel but people are not following guidance

“We provide them with face masks but people don’t wear them.

“We put our lives on the line while the public takes the virus very lightly. It is very frustrating for us health workers.”

The administration has enforced COVID-19 protocols – pilgrims must wear face masks and are only allowed to attend with a negative PCR test result.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
People will take a dip in the River Ganges during the month-long festival

But in reality, social distancing is almost impossible to enforce.

India is in the midst of a second wave.

The low number of cases in the winter months had lulled people into believing it’s over.

Opening up society, a low fatality rate and vaccinations have led to Indians letting their guard down.

The festival will also mean people take a dip in the River Ganges
The festival is seen as a super spreader event

For many weeks the country has been immersed in state elections.

The prime minister, his cabinet and leaders of all political parties are campaigning at rallies with thousands in attendance.

Roadshows expose every nook and corner.

Experts have also said the new variants of the virus are far more infectious but less lethal.

Genome sequencing of all cases in Punjab show around 80% of them are due to the UK variant.

While millions will make their way to the Maha Kumbh over the next few weeks, the rising number of cases are sure of grave concern for the government.

India began its vaccination programme on 16 January but less than 1% of the population have been fully vaccinated.

Though the process had a slow start it has picked up pace over the last few weeks.

India may have one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, but it can ill afford a severe burden on its already inadequate and creaking public health care system.

For decades successive governments have spent just over 1.2% of the GDP on healthcare.

Over 70% of its citizens rely on expensive private health care and one illness can push a family into poverty.

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China deploys jets and bombers into Taiwanese airspace in ‘biggest incursion to date’ | World News



Twenty-five Chinese military aircraft have entered Taiwanese airspace in the largest reported incursion to date, according to officials.

Taiwan‘s government has complained in recent months after repeated missions by China‘s air force near the island.

The incursions have been concentrated in the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence zone.

Pic AP
Chinese vessels and aircrafts have conducted drills near Taiwan for several years, but in the last 12 months the actions have stepped up. Pic AP

The latest mission on Monday involved 14 J-16 and four J-10 fighter jets – and four H-6K bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons.

Two anti-submarine aircraft and an early warning aircraft also took part, Taiwan’s defence minister said.

It is believed to be the largest incursion by the Chinese air force into Taiwanese airspace, and officials said combat aircraft were dispatched to intercept and warn the intruders away.

Missile systems were also deployed to monitor the Chinese vessels as the aircraft flew in an area close to Thailand’s Pratas Islands, according to the defence ministry.

It came just three days after the US issued new guidelines that will deepen its ties with Taiwan.

The latest guidelines from the US State Department will mean American officials can meet more freely with their Taiwanese counterparts.

America, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but it has watched on as tensions between Beijing and the island nation have stepped up in recent years.

Pic Reuters
Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has vowed the island nation will ‘fight to the very last day’ if China attacks

Washington’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Friday that the US is concerned about China’s aggressive actions against Taiwan – and warned it would be a “serious mistake” for anyone to try to change the status quo in the Western Pacific by force.

Mr Blinken’s statement came after Taiwan scrambled an aircraft to broadcast a warning message after 12 Chinese jets flew over its airspace on 7 April.

The tense start to 2021 comes after a report released by a government-backed think tank found that China made a record 380 incursions into Taiwan’s defence zone last year.

China describes Taiwan as its most sensitive territorial issue and a red line the US should not cross.

Beijing sees the island as a breakaway province that will one day become part of the country again. It has never renounced the possible use of force to bring about eventual unification.

However, Taiwanese people see themselves an independent state and the dispute with their giant neighbour has left relations frayed with the constant threat of violence.

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January 2021: Taiwan military simulates China attack

China has in the past described its missions as being to protect the country’s sovereignty and deal with “collusion” between Taipei and Washington.

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has previously said the country will fight “to the very last day” if China attacks.

More widely, China continues to exercise its muscle in the South China Sea.

Over the weekend, military activity near the Philippines spiked as a Chinese aircraft carrier entered the region, and the US military is preparing joint drills with the Philippine military nearby.

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Off-duty Italian police officers find stolen Roman statue in Belgium – a decade after it vanished | World News



A first-century Roman statue has been recovered by two off-duty Italian police officers almost a decade after it was stolen.

The statue was stolen from the Villa Marini Dettina, an archaeological site on the outskirts of Rome, in November 2011 and has now been found in an antique shop in Belgium.

It was discovered by the off-duty officers from the Italian police’s archaeological unit.

The Togatus statue, featuring a headless Roman wearing a draped toga, is valued at €100,000 (£86,000).

The statue is believed to be worth 100,000 (£860,000) and was stolen from an archaeological site near Rome. Pic: AP
The statue is believed to be worth 100,000 (£860,000) and was stolen from an archaeological site near Rome. Pic: AP

The two officers were on assignment in Brussels when they took a walk after work in the Sablon neighbourhood, known for its antique shops.

They spotted a statue that they suspected was from Italy and confirmed their suspicions when they cross-referenced it with their stolen antique database.

An Italian businessman, who used a Spanish alias, has been referred to prosecutors for further investigation. He is alleged to have received and exported the statue abroad, police said.

Italian authorities have been attempting to recover stolen antiques for years.

In 2019, a dozen pieces of artwork were returned to Italy by private auction house Christie’s. The items featured a marble fragment from the sarcophagus in Rome’s catacombs of St Callixtus, a piece worth £50,000.

In June 2020, officials found a stolen Banksy mural in Italy that was taken from the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.

The image was created in memory of the victims of the 2015 terrorist attack in the French capital. It was cut out and removed from the concert hall in 2019.

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