In the first two days of the school year in Dallas, Rosemary Allen has witnessed a gamut of emotions among children displaced by Hurricane Katrina: older students crying as they board the bus to school; some who are reluctant to talk in class; and others who seem happier keeping to themselves.
“They have been through an awful lot,” said the 159,000-student district’s associate superintendent for student services. “Maybe they are concerned and anxious about separating from their parents at this point, and that’s understandable.”
Even some parents are reluctant to send their children to school because of fears of separation, she added.
Around the country, districts that have seen their enrollments swell in the aftermath of the hurricane are addressing the physical and mental-health needs of the student evacuees in addition to meeting their educational needs.
Psychologists say children who have lived through a traumatizing event of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina could exhibit conditions such as anxiety and fearfulness, difficulty with sleeping, extreme fatigue, irritability, and stomachaches and headaches.
“When children are having severe anxiety and fearfulness, we want to make every effort to listen to them, to reassure them, give them help and support,” said Ted Feinberg, the assistant director of the Bethesda, Md.-based National School Psychologists Association. The group recommends that teachers provide opportunities for the evacuee children to share their concerns, but not to force discussion.
On the physical-health front, several states have temporarily waived immunization requirements for displaced students and are offering free tetanus shots at health clinics to adults and children exposed to floodwaters. The potential hazards were underscored late last week by reports that some people exposed to the fetid waters in New Orleans were experiencing health problems.
“We are just accepting any health records they have, or we are going on the word of parents,” said Susan Underwood, the coordinator of homeless programs for the Arkansas education department. “We will deal with the information later.”
The state has so far received more than 1,000 students displaced by the storm.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says on its Web site that outbreaks of infectious diseases following hurricanes are rare in developed countries. Among children, as among adults, possible effects include diarrhea and dysentery, said CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden, adding that officials are closely monitoring shelters housing the evacuees.
On Sept. 7, the federal Environment Protection Agency warned of high levels of E. coli bacteria, which can cause severe diarrhea and other diseases, in flooded areas in New Orleans. But in areas aiding displaced residents, health officials sought to reassure residents by saying that those coming in from flooded regions did not pose a health risk, and noting that there had been no major outbreaks of disease other than scattered reports of diarrheal illnesses.
In the Dallas school district, which had enrolled 300 students staying in shelters but hundreds more who are living with relatives or friends, students were screened for dysentery on the first two days of school, and eight students had to be pulled out for treatment, Ms. Allen said.
Experts warn that dealing with student evacuees’ emotional needs is a long-term issue that will be a particular challenge because of the lack of resources in most affected school districts.
“This is going to be a big planning problem,” said Howard Adelman, a professor of psychology and the co-director of the School Mental Health Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. He said that besides responding to students’ emotional needs, schools must plan for engaging the newcomers and for placing students who qualify for special education. It is also not uncommon for students who have gone through a traumatizing event to develop learning disorders, he said.
“There is going to have to be a plan to identify kids who have delayed reactions,” he said.
Lupita Garcia, the director of parent and student services for the 30,000-student Irving, Texas, district, said the district had enrolled 126 displaced students as of late last week. District officials were using motivational speakers and organizing group discussion sessions for families displaced by the storm, she said.
“It is key for us to keep in mind that many of these adults have their own issues to deal with—their dreams, their losses,” Ms. Garcia said. “They are not able to help the children emotionally because they are dealing with a lot of their own issues.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Schools Address Health Concerns of Evacuated Students