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U.S. Climate Disasters Leave Vulnerable Students Straining to Recover, Report Finds

More than two-thirds of America’s public school students live in counties that experienced major climate disasters between 2017 and 2019, and a new report shows that socially vulnerable students were hit especially hard, struggled to recover, and in some cases lost ground.

“With climate change increasing the severity of natural disasters across the U.S., the consequences for communities in the paths of hurricanes and wildfires are far-reaching—and the effects on essential services like education are only beginning to be understood,” writes Grist.

The recent report to Congress by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found a clear correlation between pre-existing social vulnerabilities in students and their struggle to recover from the trauma of a climate disaster like a hurricane.

It defined social vulnerability as “the heightened susceptibility of certain social groups—including children, minorities, English learners, people with disabilities, and those who are poor—to the adverse impacts of natural hazards, including disproportionate death, injury, loss, or disruption of livelihood.”

That vulnerability is cumulative, it added: “Having more than one vulnerability factor—such as children living in poverty—raises a group’s susceptibility to the adverse impacts of disasters.”

The GAO studied school districts that received recovery benefits after the hundreds of major disasters that have hit the U.S. since 2017. The agency found that “the districts receiving federal grants tended to have above-average rates of students from socially-vulnerable groups compared to all school districts nationwide.” 

And students in those districts generally found it more difficult to recover from the trauma of a climate disaster than their more secure peers. 

According to school officials interviewed for the report, students struggled with the loss of their homes and belongings, food insecurity, a caregiver’s job loss, and disconnection from their social networks. The report authors flagged mental health as particularly critical, noting that academic recovery could not begin until a student’s emotional recovery was well in hand.

Districts with high levels of social vulnerability already lacked sufficient qualified mental health providers even before the disaster, the GAO added.

“In some cases, years after a disaster, students were still struggling with unmet psychological and emotional needs,” Grist writes, especially students with disabilities, non-English speakers, and those from low-income households.

Educators interviewed for the GAO report also spoke of important educational gains lost to disasters and their challenging aftermath, with both graduation and college attendance rates dropping for Latino students, reversing a trend which showed them being to catch up with their white peers in those markers of achievement.