School districts that received federal disaster recovery grants following natural disasters in 2017-19 had greater percentages of vulnerable student populations — including low income, minority, English learner or special needs — than other districts nationwide, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office.
School districts with higher than average percentages of students from vulnerable groups also faced “heightened challenges recovering from recent natural disasters,” the report found. The challenges generally fell under emotional, academic, financial and physical recovery.
School districts serving a greater portion of these students may need more recovery assistance as a result, GAO said.
Since 2017, some 300 presidentially declared natural disasters have hit the United States. During 2017-19, 840 school districts received some form of federal disaster recovery aid from the Department of Education, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or both.
However, following a natural disaster, most recovery and response efforts are concentrated in the first one to three months, according to Betty Lai, associate professor of counseling, developmental and educational psychology at Boston College, who studies school functioning following large-scale disasters.
“A lot of times, that can dissipate over time,” Lai said.
Yet natural disasters can have a prolonged impact on schools and students, according to research cited in the report.
District leaders have noted in the past that funding and resources are often short term, making long-term accessibility to resources like mental health services a challenge despite disasters causing “significant trauma” to students,” as described in the GAO report.
“Academic recovery generally could not take place until students and staff had begun their emotional recovery,” the report said.
For students from vulnerable backgrounds and in low-income districts with various resource shortages, these challenges are only exacerbated.
“One of the big myths about disasters is that disasters affect all children and all communities in the same way,” Lai said. “And we know that that isn't true.”
GAO found 57% of school districts receiving grants for the 2017-19 disasters served a higher than average percentage of students from two or more socially vulnerable subgroups, compared to 38% of schools nationwide.
Children who were already vulnerable before disasters are more likely to have more negative outcomes following disasters, Lai added.
Stressors pre-disaster can make recovery more challenging for these populations, while children and districts in wealthier areas are often buffered from these experiences, Lai said.
For example, temporary housing is less likely to be waterproof, and children in vulnerable communities are more likely to live in homes susceptible to damage from natural disasters. Disasters also only worsen preexisting crumbling school infrastructure, Lai said.
“The ability of schools to withstand and recover from disasters is critical to community recovery,” GAO wrote. “However, school recovery can be a lengthy, complicated process.”
Of the five districts in socially vulnerable communities surveyed by GAO that received federal assistance after a natural disaster, officials said “financial recoveries were often incomplete, requiring significant administrative effort.” In addition, “physical recovery was still ongoing in most cases, and required use of improvised facilities that disrupted the learning process,” GAO said.
Much like psychological recovery in the wake of natural disaster, recovery from homelessness may also be a prolonged process.
“It's not as though homelessness caused by a natural disaster just resolves the next year when the disaster’s gone,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a network including school district homeless liaisons and state coordinators for homeless education. “It's really hard for people to get back on their feet.”
How well a district responds to mass homelessness caused by disaster is directly correlated to the robustness of their McKinney-Vento programs and preexisting community relations, which vary by state and district, according to Duffield. The McKinney-Vento Act provides rights and services to students experiencing homelessness.
“Leadership, whether it's at the state or the district level, is really important,” she added.
With a recent increase in natural disasters and a forecast of more on the horizon, both Lai and Duffield stressed the importance of school preparedness and prevention efforts. These range from properly screening students for and triaging mental health services prior to and post-disaster to weatherproofing school buildings and having systems in place to respond to socioeconomic challenges.
“This isn't just isolated to certain areas of the country,” Lai said. “Many of our nation's schools need to think about how to withstand disasters."