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School & District Management

Vulnerable Students, Districts at Greater Risk as Natural Disasters Grow More Frequent

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 19, 2022 4 min read
Helina Thorp, right, 14, expresses frustration while unsuccessfully trying to log in to her school distance-learning classes in Placerville, Calif., after Pacific Gas & Electric intentionally shut off power to prevent wildfires amid high winds in September 2020.
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School districts that have relied on emergency aid to recover from floods, fires, and storms are more likely to serve large shares of students of color, economically disadvantaged children, and other vulnerable groups, new federal research says.

While that disaster aid proved very beneficial to many communities, K-12 officials also reported a variety of significant disruptions to students’ mental health, school infrastructure, and other problems stemming from destabilized housing environments and parental job loss, a Government Accountability Office report found. These leaders also told the GAO that federal assistance sometimes fell short of meeting schools’ long-term needs, leading to delays and other problems for recovery efforts.

In recent years, more than half the districts receiving certain disaster relief served disproportionately large shares of at least two groups of vulnerable students, like English-language learners and children from low-income backgrounds.

“School districts serving high proportions of children in these groups may need more recovery assistance compared to districts with less-vulnerable student populations,” said the GAO report, which was published Tuesday.

During interviews with officials overseeing districts affected by disasters, the GAO also found that bureaucratic, financial, and other hardships made it more difficult for less-affluent districts to repair buildings. And in contrast to their wealthier counterparts that were also affected by natural disasters, such districts reported prolonged academic declines among disadvantaged students.

The GAO study looked at districts getting assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program and the U.S. Department of Education’s Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations (Restart) programs from 2017 to 2019.

In all, 840 districts received the Education Department grant assistance, FEMA assistance, or both during the period studied. These districts educate roughly 18 percent of public school students in the U.S., and constitute 4.5 percent of all districts.

Problems posed by disasters could intensify

The new research underscores the challenges faced by schools and the nation in general. The cost of natural disasters in 2021 exceeded $145 billion in the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported, marking the third-highest tally on record.

Such difficulties are likely to become more acute for those districts and students in the coming years, based on trends driven by climate change and growing concerns that natural disasters have become more destructive.

A United Nations report from last March said natural disasters occurred three times more often than five decades ago. And a World Meteorological Association study recently reported a five-fold increase in disasters from 50 years ago; this August 2021 report said the spike was “driven by climate change, more extreme weather, and improved reporting.”

The GAO also published research in 2020 about how the coronavirus pandemic put yet another heavy burden on districts still recovering from natural disasters.

The new research details how districts getting FEMA and Education Department aid in recent years serve higher shares of vulnerable learners. For example, 57 percent of districts getting that emergency relief served a higher-than-average share of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, while only 41 percent of districts nationwide have a disproportionately large share of those students, according to the GAO.

School officials interviewed by the GAO reported that several years after storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019, students “still had significant unmet psychological and emotional needs” and “were still working through trauma.” And in some cases, districts still experienced shortfalls that affected their recovery efforts, even after getting federal assistance and tapping into insurance policies.

“Emergency management officials in one state said some of the schools damaged by a hurricane [four] years earlier had not even broken ground on new facilities,” the report stated.

The report also examined how districts used the grants to replace instructional materials like textbooks and laptops, provide transportation to students displaced from their homes, remove mold from buildings, and keep school staff who otherwise would have been let go.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, said the GAO’s work underscored the need for $130 billion in grant funding and bond authority for school infrastructure in the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2021 introduced last year by Democratic lawmakers. Meanwhile, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., included funding to make school facilities more climate-friendly in his Green New Deals for Public Schools legislation. Both bills face an uphill battle in Congress.

Education groups have also pushed—unsuccessfully so far—for dedicated K-12 infrastructure aid in the Build Back Better Act, a sweeping legislative package from President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats that has stalled on Capitol Hill.

“We cannot expect schools to prepare for our changing climate or recover from future disasters without dedicated federal funding for school infrastructure,” Scott said in a statement.

The GAO’s report is titled, “School Districts in Socially Vulnerable Communities Faced Heightened Challenges after Recent Natural Disasters.”

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