The great Louisiana Floods of 2016 have led to the closure of at least 22 of the state’s 70 public school districts, with additional districts calling off classes as a precaution given the immense devastation. This means that as many as one-third of the state’s public school students were out of school last week ,and potentially for many weeks to come. That equates to more than 241,000 children who are not in classrooms where they belong; and these figures do not even account for the many thousands of private and charter school students also out of school across the water-logged state.
Almost exactly 11 years ago, Hurricane Katrina disrupted some 370,000 school-age children. For our book, Children of Katrina, we spent nearly a decade examining how their lives unfolded in the years after the catastrophe. We focused on education as a key “sphere” of children’s lives. It is a special sphere in that it is unique to children and youth and it has specific time parameters: when the window for schooling is gone, children cannot get it back. Missing school means missing critical stages in cognitive and social development and likely suffering irreparable harm in terms of their intellectual growth, development, and future educational goals.
The school sphere, as with the other spheres of children’s lives, is marked by inequality, with some students having access to greater advantages than others. Some school districts, often segregated by race and class, have more resources and support than others; some families have the ability to enroll children in private schools that require tuition or arrange to be in a high-quality school district, while other families do not have those options.
Keeping this in mind, and recognizing the importance of education during displacement and recovery, there are many things that can and should be done, to support disaster affected children and youth and their educational process. These include:
- Reopening schools (including childcare centers and pre-schools) as quickly as possible after a disaster; this means allocating proper resources to repair, rebuild, and/or revive schools in disaster zones;
- In receiving communities that receive large numbers of displaced children and youth, providing pathways for their rapid enrollment;
- Offering emotional support through optional peer-oriented and/or peer-led support groups as well as licensed professional counselors, social workers, and school therapists;
- Training all school staff—from upper-level administrators, to teachers, to custodians—how to be supportive of children and youth who have been affected by disaster as well as those who are in receiving communities who are now welcoming disaster-affected youth into their classrooms;
- Designing and implementing disaster preparedness, response, and recovery curriculum within classrooms;
- Providing opportunities for children to help their schools’ and classmates’ recovery; this could, for example, come in the form of service learning, fundraising, mentoring programs, or community action activities;
- Offering immediate and long-term support for teachers, who are often recovering from disaster themselves; this may include financial, professional, and emotional support;
- Intervening against bullying and stigma that may be attached to “disaster survivor” status for youth; reminding these professionals that bullying may be exacerbated based on region of origin, gender, age, race, or other characteristics;
- Integrating displaced children in classrooms with familiar faces if possible;
- Making school days as predictable as possible and re-establishing routines within classrooms and schools;
- Allowing children and youth the opportunity to work on projects that help them process their disaster experience;
- Funding school programs in arts, music, drama, and creative writing to encourage expression and foster healing.
Alice Fothergill, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont. She is a member of the Social Science Research Council Research Network on Persons Displaced by Katrina. Fothergill’s book, Heads Above Water: Gender, Class, and Family in the Grand Forks Flood, examines women’s experiences in the 1997 flood in North Dakota. She is also co-editor of Social Vulnerability to Disasters.
Lori Peek, PhD is an associate professor of sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University. She also serves as the Associate Chair for the SSRC Task Force on Hurricane Katrina and Rebuilding the Gulf Coast and is a member of the SSRC Research Network on Persons Displaced by Katrina. Peek is the author of the award-winning book Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11 and co-editor of the volume Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora.
Together, Fothergill and Peek are the authors of the award-winning book, Children of Katrina, the longest-term ethnographic study of children in disaster.