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Students returning to school after Hurricane Ian may face long-term challenges, say education experts

Caleb Oquendo

Most of the public schools in Charlotte and Lee Counties finally opened last week, the last in the state to do so following Hurricane Ian. Students returning to school have lost out on weeks of instruction, putting them behind on the year’s planned curriculum. But more serious, say some experts, are long-term effects on a student’s physical and emotional health.

Betty Lai is an associate professor in counseling psychology at Boston College. She specializes in examining students’ mental and physical health following large-scale disasters. She said disasters often affect students in three main ways: their physical health, their mental health and their academic performance.

Besides children being injured in the actual event, physical symptoms may manifest as an increase of stress-related headaches or stomachaches. But for mental health, Lai said the hallmark symptom is post-traumatic stress.

“That may look like re-experiencing the event, nightmares or avoiding reminders of the event all together,” Lai said.

Stressors may come from the event itself, like having their home flood.

“But recovery stressors also play a big role in how severe the impacts can be on young people, and how long those symptoms can last,” said Lai.

The loss of a home, a caregiver’s job, or even just the disruption of their daily routine can trouble a student far beyond the disaster.

“Some of them are having to move, some may not be able to go back to their old school, so routines in and out of school are having to be reinvented,” said Joni Splett, an associate professor in the school psychology program at the University of Florida.

“Adults around them are also probably very stressed and working in chaotic environments. The death toll has also been high, so there are likely students who are in some way touched by a death or traumatic injury,” she said.

Going back to school helps ease the chaos.

“It’s good that they’re going back to school,” said Splett “and getting into new routines, a new normal.”

But academic results may not follow. A 2021 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina found that math and reading scores in 15 heavily affected districts suffered following Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. Even years after the storms, students in the same grade level scored several points lower than peers who were not affected by the storms. Results were the clearest in elementary aged children. These results suggest students were not able to get back on track academically over time.

Diane Kratt, a professor in the College of Education at Florida Gulf Coast University, said students impacted differently will recover at different paces.

“Students who were lightly affected, it easier to bridge that gap,” said Kratt, “however there are students who will have to relocate, their lives have changed, their living arrangements have changed… those students are going to need a lot of support and time so they can feel safe and get in a mindset to learn.”

This creates an uneven playing field in the classroom.

“This is a systemic issue. Schools and youth that were vulnerable before the disaster are more vulnerable after,” said Lai.

According to the Disaster Risk Index, a mathematical model that determines a region’s risk to disasters, both Lee and Charlotte counties rank high compared to other areas of Florida. Their rank shows high social vulnerability, and low community resilience. Social vulnerability is calculated using the age, income, race, gender and other factors that make a community vulnerable to storms, and community resilience is calculated using government, economic, social and environmental resources the community has at its disposal to recovery from a disaster.

These findings suggest a steep road to recovery for this region of Southwest Florida. The same may extend to its schools.

Researchers have several suggestions for how to best approach recovery.

Cassandra Davis, one of the authors of the study from the University of North Carolina, said strategic decisions can help schools assist their students and staff in the recovery process. She advocates for imbedding more mental health specialists in schools and communities. Davis said students can experience distressing events after a storm that can disrupt the learning process.

“It would start raining outside in April, and students would stop and become very emotional about it, thinking the storm was returning. We know hurricane season isn’t in April, but these acts are triggering. So having that mental health specialist in schools is vital,” Davis said.

She also said schools can become more flexible with teachers.

“We found teachers were burned out after an event,” Davis said, which leads to more educators leaving the field.

Kratt is not a mental health professional but is a fierce advocate for mental health resources in schools. She said part of the barrier to recovery is teachers themselves being underserved.

“I want teachers to be able to take care of themselves and their own mental health. That way they can recognize the symptoms in their students, and get those needs met sooner rather than later.”

Splett also said teachers are likely facing the same stressors students are.

“The staff coming back are coming back are processing their own traumatic experiences, as well as the additional load they are picking up,” she said.

Kratt said many teachers may themselves be displaced, and may choose to move out of the area, putting the school environment under additional stressed. She also adds that student teachers have lost out on training time, possibly delaying their entrance into the workforce.

A representative from the School District of Lee County said in an email: “We were short teachers before the Hurricane and expect we will continue to be short” but that they “expect our student numbers will change” as well, and that this is a transitional process.

“Whether they’ve decided to move out of Florida, I think that in a time of a teaching shortage, this will impact them even more,” said Kratt.

Flexibility is also important for students. Splett advocates for making the school feel like a safe place first and foremost.

“Schools could create memory walls or art walks, giving children a chance to share their survivor stories.”

She also advocates for what she calls “compassionate flexibility,” putting a student’s emotional wellbeing over their academic performance for a time to help a student get back into a routine. With time, students will be able to return to a more rigorous routine successfully.

The good news is, said Lai, that most young people are very resilient and are able to bounce back. But a minority, maybe less than 20% she said, are going to experience chronic distress.

For those students, Splett said more needs to be done. Though the state has been improving in mental health resources, she said, it’s still not enough.

“It was bad pre-pandemic, it was bad pre-Ian, and now it’s worse,” Splett said, “if these storms are going to keep happening, we have got to invest more in training more professionals to be available in this space.”