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Education Department Unveils Disaster-Response Team as Aid Bill Heads to Trump

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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 Wednesday.

The House education subcommittee heard about the new dedicated staff at the same time they heard testimony from educators about schools' recovery from natural disasters in California, Florida, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Earlier in the week, the full House sent a $19.1 billion disaster-relief bill to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it, 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 Tuesday report 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. 

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 the process between having such funds appropriated by Congress and having the education systems of areas impacted by disaster actually get that funding 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 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 on the subcommittee 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. 

Educators also told the committee about their struggles 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, for example, 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, and its traumatic impact on students in particular was one of his major concerns. 

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

Photo: Jeremy Vasquez holds his nephew Jamdry Salsado, 2, as he waits in line for water at Ramon Luis Cabanas baseball stadium in the San Jose neighborhood of Utuado, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria in October 2017. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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