Published Online: September 7, 2005

Federal Officials Plan Next Steps to Help Schools Cope With Katrina’s Effects

Federal officials are grappling with the next steps to help students displaced by Hurricane Katrina return to school and to help districts and educators also cope with the aftermath of the disaster.

In remarks from the Oval Office in the White House on Sept. 6, President Bush thanked school districts across the country for welcoming students whose homes and schools were flooded or destroyed because of the hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast last week. He said he had met with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings that morning to discuss a plan to help states deal with the costs of enrolling thousands of unexpected students.

“A lot of school districts are taking in these children who have had to leave their homes and their local districts,” Mr. Bush said. “And we want to thank the schools and the school districts and the teachers and the PTAs for reaching out and doing their duty.”

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Secretary Spellings announced a new Web site aimed at helping schools that have enrolled student evacuees, called Hurricane Help for Schools.

The Web site is aimed at getting additional supplies to schools that have enrolled students from New Orleans and other hard-hit areas. Schools can post messages about what resources and supplies they need, and companies and organizations can respond directly. Groups can also offer their own resources and provide ways for schools to contact them.

“Schools across the country are taking in displaced students, and Americans want to help them,” Ms. Spellings said in a statement. “We are committed to making sure that help gets to those who need it.”

The secretary planned to meet Sept. 7 with education groups’ representatives to help coordinate relief efforts for schools. The U.S. Department of Education said in a Sept. 6 news release that certain reporting provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act would be relaxed for states that were affected, but officials were not specific on which provisions those might be.

Lawmakers Meet With Key Groups

On Capitol Hill, federal lawmakers were also moving to aid schools handling an influx of evacuated students. Though Congress has already approved $10.5 billion in general emergency funds for the affected areas, some lawmakers were seeking to provide help specifically to schools and students.

Sens. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, convened a meeting Sept. 6 with representatives from a long list of relief groups, including those that deal with education. The committee planned to hold a hearing or roundtable discussion Sept. 8 to develop more concrete ideas for aid.

After the Sept. 6 meeting, which included representatives of the 2.7 million-member National Education Association and the Council of the Great City Schools, Sen. Kennedy announced that he would seek to send $2,500 per child to districts that had enrolled students displaced by the hurricane.

“We are facing a disaster of biblical proportions. … It really has touched the hearts and souls of all Americans,” Mr. Kennedy said.

He urged evacuees to go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Web site to register for assistance.

Reg Weaver, the president of the NEA, who attended the meeting with Sens. Kennedy and Enzi, said he suggested starting a disaster-assistance fund specifically for schools.

“Senator Enzi and Senator Kennedy were very accepting of ideas,” Mr. Weaver said. “Anything that will offer assistance to schools, teachers, and students is welcome.”

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, who also attended the meeting, urged Congress to authorize FEMA to do what was needed to help schools, including assistance in rebuilding facilities, providing portable classrooms, and buying textbooks.

“This is a calamity we’ve never seen before and deserves our undivided and full attention,” said Mr. Casserly, whose Washington-based organization represents large urban school districts.

Restoring Confidence

On the House side, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking minority member of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said it was critical that Congress restore Americans’ confidence in government’s ability to handle the crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“Today, when school districts all over the country are absorbing hundreds of thousands of new schoolchildren that they know nothing about, … we’ve got to rebuild that confidence in the school districts, in the teachers, in the administrators, in the local government, that they will be able to take care of these children, provide them with an education for whatever length of time, and they will be properly reimbursed,” Mr. Miller said.

Secretary Spellings, meanwhile, also fielded questions in a White House Web chat Sept. 6 on the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Questions ranged from teachers trying to find their students, to students seeking ways to raise money for victims, to more technical questions about provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act in the aftermath of the hurricane.

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