Hurricane Harvey and Maria’s Damaging Impact on Education


How are school districts, schools, and teachers handling the aftermath of the 2017 Hurricane Season?  What are the short and long-term impacts of the hurricanes on instruction and learning?

For many school children, the New Year is a time when students head back to school with resolutions, new winter clothes and recharged energy. This was not the case for numerous students who were affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Maria.  For many of these students and their families, the holiday season was filled with distress as they faced financial burdens from the loss of their homes and valuables (Chang, 2017; Stengle, 2018). In November, the Texas Educational Agency (TEA) reported that 19,000 students from Harvey- affected areas were either displaced in temporary living arrangements or were living in damaged homes (Chang, 2017). As of January, it was estimated that well over 40% of Puerto Ricans still do not have access to electricity (Best States, 2018).

A Need for Open Buildings and Resources

After winter break, many students returned to schools that still lacked adequate resources. Mike Morath, the Texas Education Commissioner, believes that it will cost around $1 billion to fix Hurricane Harvey’s damage (Swaby, 2017).  At the moment, it is unknown how much money is needed to fix Maria’s damage on the Puerto Rican school system; however, Puerto Rico’s current $120 billion debt crisis adds salt to the wound (Kennedy & Migaki, 2018).  As a temporary solution, some students have been displaced to different school districts in the States for the remainder of the school year (Best States, 2018; Kennedy, 2017; Swaby, 2017).

Resources for Texas. To help solve the initial problem in Texas, Houston schools are estimated to receive $126 million to completely rebuild four elementary schools damaged by Harvey. The Houston District has also been granted a $4.7 million grant from Aramco Services Company for six local elementary schools and one high school. The grant will help to provide laptops, textbooks, educational supplies, tutoring services, and such for these schools (Kennedy, 2017).

Puerto Rico, Another Story. Many Puerto Rican schools are open despite not having access to electricity, fully working generators and air conditioning. Time will only tell when and how these schools will be entirely renovated (Araiza, 2017). The vast number of displaced Puerto Rican students has caused an unexpected closure of schools not physically affected by Hurricane Maria. Without enough students, schools such as Gaspar Vila Mayans elementary are likely to close. It is currently estimated by Puerto Rico’s Department of Education that 22,350 students no longer attend school on the island (Kennedy & Migaki, 2018).

Nora Oritz Navarro, a social worker for Gaspar Vila Mayans elementary, says, “It was a huge impact for the kids and the community. Kids felt lost and sad. They lost their houses or part of their belongings because of the hurricane. To also lose their school, they felt scared’…the faster all of us, kids and adults, get back to reality, we begin to heal” (Kennedy & Migaki, 2018).


Derailed Educational Outcomes

While budgets for new buildings and structures help to reestablish former buildings, they cannot buy back lost time. Students affected by Harvey and Maria have missed multiple days of school, and educators are worried.

Many Texas school officials have been advocating to push back standardized testing as they feel that students will not be able to successfully pass the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) tests.  While students affected by Hurricane Harvey will not be penalized if they score poorly, the same cannot be said for the schools themselves.

In August 2018, Texans schools will face new state-wide school evaluation policies that will result in schools being ranked on a grading scale from A-F.  A low ranking school could risk a loss of funding or worse – the closure of a school if the school has failed state requirements five years in a row (Chang, 2017; Swaby, 2017). According to Education Week, at least 23 of the schools affected by Harvey have failed a least four years in a row (Chang, 2017).

In Puerto Rico, many school administrators are also worried about exam scores due to opening delays because of the storm’s intense damages and a lack of resources. Many of the schools in Puerto Rico were still acting as shelters weeks after they opened, thus reducing the time and energy spent focus on education (Araiza, 2017).

Carols Rosario, a math teacher at CROEM, explains “We are behind schedule. The standardized tests are in May and, right now, with these conditions, I don’t think that we can meet the expectations of the standardized tests” (Araiza, 2017).

As the year progresses, educators and the Department of Education of Puerto Rico might be able to delay or push back standardized testing as they get a better read for the need.

Mental Health Initiatives

As media attention begins to shift towards other issues, it is critical that we do not forget that these disasters can negatively impact students’ mental health on a long term scale and disrupt their education.

Dr. Jeff Temple, a psychologist at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, states “I think that oftentimes we focus on the immediate effects of disasters, and that’s really a small portion of what’s important in terms of looking at mental health, especially with respect to kids” (Stengle, 2018).

Currently, The Texas Education Agency has stepped up to support mental health initiatives in schools by providing educators with the tools to spot traumatized children (Stengle, 2018).

While schools on the mainland are receiving money to support mental health programs for displaced Puerto Rican students, Puerto Rico as of right now isn’t getting much aid in this department. Despite this, the local communities in Puerto Rico are fighting to establish normalcy by keeping their schools open and doing their best to provide for their students (Araiza, 2017).

Adequate mental health services are crucial as students affected by both storms are at risk of developing long-term trauma.

If hurricanes and other natural disasters are becoming more prevalent, what will be the best protocol?  What will be the long-term impact on student learning, achievement and well-being? Will students who are displaced be returning to their homes? Who is planning for how to handle future events? What would you do if this was your district?

References

Araiza, V. (2017). Schools in Puerto Rico continue to push forward despite everyday challenges.

Best States. (2018). Influx of Puerto Rico students strains school resources. US News.

Chang, J. (2017). Texas Gov. seeks testing reprieve for \hurricane-affected schools. Education Week.

Kennedy, M. (2017). HISD approves plan to rebuild 4 Harvey-damaged elementary schools. KPRC.

Kennedy, M., & Migaki, L. (2018). School closures loom in Puerto Rico as enrollment shrinks after Maria. NPR.

Stengle, J. (2018). Hurricane Harvey survivors feel grief, distress months later. Houston Chronicle.

Swaby, A. (2017). Texas schools weathered Hurricane Harvey, political strife in 2017. Texas Tribune.

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