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Where Do You Find Education After a Natural Disaster?

by David Engle | Oct 06, 2020 | 5 min read

We’re nine full months into 2020, and it’s already been unlike any we’ve ever seen. There’s no need to rehash all of the events that have contributed to this strange year, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention COVID-19 and its constantly growing death toll (more than 200,000 Americans taken away from us, and counting), a corresponding economic crash that rivals The Great Depression, racial division, protests and violence in cities across the country, and devastating natural disasters that have left thousands homeless.

Unfortunately, politics have played a role in most of the crises I just mentioned, but natural disasters don’t care if you’re Republican, Democrat, independent…they strike anyone at any time and wreak havoc on lives everywhere. Nowhere has that been more prominent than in California, Oregon, Arizona, and Washington state, all of which are dealing with historically destructive wildfires, as well as states like Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama–all of which were hit with tropical storms and hurricanes.

Hurricanes Laura and Isaias alone combined for 32 deaths in Louisiana, Texas, and North Carolina, not to mention the literal destruction of neighborhoods and towns that forced 14,000 people to seek shelter, while hundreds of thousands dealt with damage and power outages from Connecticut down to Virginia. Wildfires are still burning with seemingly no end in sight. As of this writing, 44,000 wildfires have burned down an estimated 7.7 million acres. In California alone, more than 8,000 wildfires have burnt more than 5,600 square miles this year. Since August 15, these fires have killed 29 people and destroyed more than 7,000 structures. Oregon has seen wildfires burn down more than 4,000 homes and 1 million acres; tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate their homes.

Understandably, the tragic loss of lives and devastating destruction of homes and businesses dominate the headlines. But one thing gets overlooked…kids and their education. This year has been difficult enough, with most children across the country shut out of schools in March and forced into makeshift remote learning. Many public and private schools have at least partially reopened this fall, with hybrid in-person and remote instruction; and those who still remain 100% remote are benefiting from much more comprehensive and well-thought-out plans for the 2020-21 school year. So, while improvements have been made for this academic year, it’s still been stressful and challenging for students who desperately want and need some continuity.

Now, add to that all of the children in the states affected by wildfires, hurricanes, and the tornadoes in the Midwest that I didn’t even get into, and these kids are truly missing out on their education. But what’s the solution? Homeschooling is definitely an option for kids whose schools were burnt down, flooded, or blown away. But what about those kids who no longer have homes? Who lost all of their personal belongings (including computers) in these disasters. Whose lives have been turned upside-down.

Falling behind due to the pandemic was bad enough. Now these students, who may have been just starting to catch up, are right back to square one. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, if schools don’t fully reopen by January 2021, many children will have lost between 3 and 11 months of learning. That’s literally more than an entire school year at the high end of that range, and that’s not something kids can easily–or quickly–make up. And now thousands and thousands of students will be forced into longer-term remote learning, setting them even further behind.

Looking specifically at natural disasters, one study in Pakistan revealed that four years after a destructive earthquake, the students who lived closest to the epicenter were 1.5 years behind their classmates. In the United States, students who were forced out of their homes by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005 missed more than a month of school, and many of those students (particularly in New Orleans) did not significantly improve academically until approximately four years later.

In addition to either a complete absence of learning or very sporadic learning–since many of these students are essentially temporarily homeless or constantly shuttling around–the cumulative amount of stress on these kids from not having a place to live, not being in school, having lost many or all of their personal belongings, and other related stressors literally impact their brains and their ability to learn when they’re eventually back in school. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child calls this “toxic stress”, meaning that healthy development can be stunted by an excess of stress response systems in the body and brain. This, in turn, can disrupt the development of brain architecture, which can have significant long-term effects.

Unfortunately there isn’t a wide range of appealing options if families are evacuated or have lost their homes. In those cases, odds are a Chromebook and school textbooks were not high on the priority list of items to grab before leaving. If, however, families do have access to a computer and/or books, learning can take place. Even if it’s not as structured as it is in school, there are plenty of websites and other online resources available to at least keep kids’ brains stimulated and their minds off of the difficult situation they’re in.

Beyond temporary makeshift learning, there have been some pretty innovative ideas to help keep kids on track, even in the aftermath of a natural disaster. For example, Undefeated Learning created Mobile STEM Labs that were dispatched to Texas after Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. The focus of these labs was disaster recovery education that emphasized hands-on STEM learning experiences designed to help students re-engage with learning during a very stressful period. These mobile labs brought STEM education back to 15,000 students in Texas, and they’re an inspirational model for the possibility of more mobile education units to serve displaced students in other parts of the country after a natural disaster.

Another ray of hope for displaced students is SchoolHouse Connection, a national non-profit organization that works to overcome homelessness through education. Their vision is that children experiencing homelessness should have full access to quality learning. SchoolHouse Connection has laid out a detailed plan of recommendations and policies, including implementation plans for schools, that allow children to resume schooling almost immediately after displacement through virtual learning, enrollment in nearby schools where they’re displaced, or transportation to the child’s original school once it’s reopened.

As I mentioned earlier, homeschooling is certainly an option if a minimal amount of technology or learning materials such as books is available. When kids are temporarily homeless or displaced, any form of education is vital. Take, for example, Elephango…this online resource (it would need some type of internet connection on a phone or tablet if a computer is unavailable) is the perfect tool for kids to use when formal education isn’t an option, with thousands of online lessons available, spanning hundreds of subjects and topics. Elephango is an ideal resource for displaced or temporarily homeless kids…not only because it may help to slow any type of learning loss, but also because children need some form of stability and distraction to keep stress to a minimum during otherwise devastating times.

Adults who have been forced from their homes due to natural disasters already have so much on their shoulders; having their children take part in some type of educational endeavor while they’re displaced, or having the ability to immediately enroll their kids in another school, helps ensure that education is one less source of stress as they begin the recovery process.


David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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