Federal

New Disaster-Recovery Team Unveiled by Education Department

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 11, 2019 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Department of Education has formed a five-person team that will be devoted full time to helping schools recover from hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, one of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ top deputies told a group of House lawmakers.

Members of the House education subcommittee heard about the new dedicated staff last week as they listened to testimony from educators about schools’ recovery from natural disasters in California, Florida, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two days before the hearing, the full House sent a $19.1 billion disaster-relief bill to President Donald Trump, who signed it late last week, that includes $165 million for the Education Department to distribute to schools.

“We need to know what has gone right, what has gone wrong, and what needs to improve for the sake of our children and their schools,” said Del. Gregorio Sablan, a Democrat who represents the Northern Mariana Islands and who is the subcommittee chairman. “Because we do know that it is a question of when, not if, the next storm will hit.”

Oversight of these grants is also an issue: A report last week from the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general’s office about a recovery grant to Virgin Islands schools found that the U.S. territory had work to do to ensure its money was being used properly. Discussing the Restart program funds, for example, the office wrote in the report that, “Without effectively designed internal controls to oversee Restart program funds, the Virgin Islands [education department] does not have reasonable assurance that it will use Restart program funds timely and for the intended purposes of the program.”

Absent from the hearing was a representative from Puerto Rico’s education department. However, when questioned by Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., about the resources made available and used by the island, Assistant Secretary of Education Frank Brogan noted that under a Restart grant, the U.S. territory had been allocated $589 million for schools, but had only drawn down about 5 percent of the funds to date.

Immense Scale

The scale of recovery from these disasters for schools can be immense. Several months ago, former Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher said her schools would need $11 billion to help them recover from Hurricane Maria.

Brogan noted that having such funds appropriated by Congress and actually getting it to education systems in areas impacted by disaster can be complicated. He used the discussion to highlight how the office of elementary and secondary education—which he oversees—has created a new disaster recovery unit. This round-the-clock team, Brogan said, will do on-the-ground work with schools in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, while also working to improve coordination between the Education Department and other agencies.

“We’re not satisfied that in every one of those cases, we are as a department where we want to be,” Brogan said.

Brogan added that at one point recently, the department calculated that disparate elements of its workforce had put 20,000 work-hours into supporting schools’ recovery efforts before it stopped counting. The department’s disaster recovery unit will provide technical support for districts that are applying for aid, Brogan noted, and also try to help them with the procurement process so they can access federal funds more readily.

“They have to be able to take a look at what they’re doing and turn those needs into an application,” he said.

There are a few dedicated funding streams for disaster aid for schools. One of them is the Project SERV grant program, which is intended to help districts recover from violent or traumatic events—DeVos has distributed these grants to districts impacted by school shootings, for example, as well as by natural disasters. Brogan highlighted SERV money during his testimony; California, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the Virgin Islands have each received $2 million in SERV grants after disasters.

Democrats also pressed Brogan on whether, and how, the department was considering climate change in its work to help districts prepare for and recover from natural disasters. Brogan responded that he was not an expert on the issue and that it was being considered by many agencies, but stressed the importance of factoring environmental impacts into everyday decisions.

Planning Struggles

Educators also told the committee about struggling to ensure districts do a full inventory of their needs, as well as their experiences working with local, state, and federal officials.

Steve Herrington, the superintendent of Sonoma County schools in California, noted that when city and county governments seek Federal Emergency Management Agency grants, “they often forget to bring the school system into the planning.”

Sonoma County schools, which were hit hard by California’s Tubbs Fire in 2017, felt the impact of the wildfire for a long time.

“We are doing long-term psychological training for teachers on how to deal with trauma in the classroom,” Herrington said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as New Disaster-Recovery Team Unveiled by Education Department

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Data Is the Federal Agency That Tracks School Data Losing Steam?
A new study of U.S. data agencies finds serious capacity problems at the National Center for Education Statistics.
3 min read
Illustration of data bar charts and line graphs superimposed over a school crossing sign.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock/Getty images
Federal Trump's VP Pick: What We Know About JD Vance's Record on Education
Two days after a gunman tried to assassinate him, former President Donald Trump announced Ohio Sen. JD Vance as his running mate.
4 min read
Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, right, points toward Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally, March 16, 2024, in Vandalia, Ohio.
Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, right, points toward Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally, March 16, 2024, in Vandalia, Ohio. Trump on July 15 announced the first-term Ohio senator as his running mate.
Jeff Dean/AP
Federal In Wake of Trump Assassination Attempt, Biden Calls for Unity and Investigation Gets Underway
President Biden condemns violence, the FBI searches for a motive, and Trump heads to RNC.
3 min read
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump is surrounded by U.S. Secret Service agents at a campaign rally, Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa.
Former President Donald Trump is surrounded by U.S. Secret Service agents after being struck by gunfire at a campaign rally, Saturday, July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pa. The day after the attempted assasination of the Republican nominee for president, Trump arrived in Milwaukee ahead of the start of the Republican National Convention and President Joe Biden gave a prime-time address, saying "politics must never be a literal battlefied. God forbid, a killing field."
Evan Vucci/AP
Federal What the 2024 GOP Platform Says About K-12 and What It Would Mean If Trump Wins
We break down what the GOP's 2024 policy platform says about education.
7 min read
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Trump National Doral Miami, Tuesday, July 9, 2024, in Doral, Fla.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Trump National Doral Miami, Tuesday, July 9, 2024, in Doral, Fla.
Rebecca Blackwell/AP