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Pandemic Piles on Schools Still Reeling From Fires, Floods, and Storms

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From the Gulf of Mexico to the western end of the Pacific Ocean, schools have recently experienced unprecedented and excruciating setbacks beyond their control. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic. 

A new report from the Government Accountability Office says that for schools that have suffered from major natural disasters in recent years, the pandemic has made difficult situations even more daunting as local leaders try to dig out and keep multiple catastrophes from overwhelming students and school communities. 

"Local education officials in disaster-affected areas told us the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues and trauma, and contributed to lost instructional time, staff burnout, delays in recovery projects, and financial strain in their communities," the GAO stated in a report released Wednesday. "Such varied challenges reflect the multi-faceted nature of both recovery and services that schools provide to students."

Some of those general findings, of course, are not surprising, given the wave of school closures in March, the uneven return to classrooms around the country this academic year, and ongoing concerns about the safety and welfare of school communities. But the GAO's study zooms in on the compounding affects of natural disasters and the pandemic.

For example, it highlights Sonoma County, Calif., students who lost 40 days of instructional time due to "wildfires, floods, and power shutoffs" in recent years, only to lose another 60 days of instructional time to the pandemic in 2020. Elsewhere, Hurricane Michael severely disrupted a Florida disrict's work to reduce the number of low-performing schools, and the shift to online learning during the pandemic represented another setback.

And the pandemic's disruption of construction projects in the Northern Mariana Islands meant that nearly two years after Super Typhoon Yutu hit the U.S. commonwealth, some students there were still taking classes in tents as of July, according to the GAO. 

Disaster aid isn't always free of politics. Last month, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded $2 billion to Puerto Rico to repair damage done to schools by Hurricane Maria in 2017, some accused the Trump administration of improperly delaying the aid and only releasing it to dovetail with the peak of the presidential campaign.


See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico's Schools Back on Track


Yet aside from such disputes, the GAO report said local school officials have sometimes struggled to ensure aid for previous disasters isn't overwhelmed by fallout from the pandemic. 

In one county, for example, the GAO reportelocal officials "said they wanted to use funds to deliver meals to students over the summer because of food insecurity caused by the pandemic, but they were unable to do so because that expense would not be tied to their natural disaster."

The GAO's report to congressional committees, "COVID-19 Pandemic Intensifies Disaster Recovery Challenges for K-12 Schools," relied on interviews with 29 officials from 50 school districts in places like California, Florida, Hawaii, and the Northern Mariana Islands affected by natural disasters, as well as other leaders in affected districts. Between 2017 and 2019, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $1.4 billion in grants to help schools recover from disasters through programs like Restart and Project SERV.

Since 2017, there have been more than 260 natural disasters declared by President Donald Trump, the report said.

Read the report here: 

Photo: Xoimar Manning, center, reacts as chef José Andrés, right, tells her he will take care of her daughter's future education expenses. Andrés was visiting the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as part of his effort to organize school cafeterias to feed those displaced by Hurricane Maria. --Swikar Patel/Education Week

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