Energy & Environment

Natural disasters can increase academic inequalities: report

Natural disasters are associated with an increase in racial and income-based academic disparities in affected school districts, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO officials spoke to officials with five vulnerable school districts on challenges associated with the aftermaths of national disasters from 2017-2019. School districts that are recipients of federal disaster grants have disproportionate numbers of students with social vulnerabilities, such as disabled, low-income or minority students, according to researchers. They found obstacles to recovery generally fell into one of four categories: academic, emotional, financial and physical. Investigators also found frequent lack of resources to address these challenges, noting that in two rural districts, officials said there were not enough available mental health providers to address the emotional traumas.

In another district, in a large urban center, officials told GAO staff that mental health providers were stretched too thin already, and that in that same district, funding issues left more than 100 schools without counselors.

“As one subject matter expert explained, there are frequently disconnects between the long-term mental health needs of disaster survivors and the short-term nature support offered to the community,” the report states.

The aftermath of natural disasters can be particularly harmful on an academic level, according to the report. One county official told the GAO that in the aftermath of natural disasters in their district, recent progress in closing the academic gap between Hispanic and white students was largely erased. Disabled students, students still learning English and low-income students, who are already at an academic disadvantage, face compounded obstacles in the wake of natural disasters. Statistically, higher-income districts do not see the same academic declines as lower-income districts in the wake of disasters.

The report also credited the Department of Education’s Restart grant program for supporting school recovery efforts in the wake of disasters, noting that during the period covered by the report, the department disbursed about $940 million across 250 districts. However, the timing of the appropriations was frequently out of step with actual district-by-district need, according to GAO.

“In a time of increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, Restart has provided key support to help school districts resume their operations and meet student needs,” GAO stated. “Further, Education has proactively worked to improve districts’ ability to access to these funds when they are needed, even with timing challenges.”

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