Schools in Southwest Florida were closed preemptively ahead of Hurricane Ian to prepare for the devastation they knew. More than two weeks after the Category 4 storm hit the coast, those schools are still closed as families and school districts recover from one of the state’s worst natural disasters.
It’s the latest example of a growing trend that education experts are sounding increasingly alarmed about: more frequent and intense extreme weather events disrupting school systems across the nation for weeks, months and, in some cases, years.
Ft. Myers Beach Elementary in Lee County is one of those schools. Just one block from the ocean, the school was destroyed by Hurricane Ian’s powerful winds, which blew down walls. Storm surges rose to the top of the school gates, destroying almost everything inside.
When Melissa Wright saw her fourth-grade son’s school for the first time after the storm, she could only manage three words: “Oh my god!
Her concern soon shifted from physical harm to her 10-year-old son’s educational future as she waits for county schools to reopen next week. And he worries that it will backfire amid the disasters.
“I feel bad for him and all the students who had to go through the Covid a couple of years ago, which completely disrupted everything,” Wright said. “And now in the fourth grade, which is another pretty impactful year, it’s all up in the air again.”
Hurricanes and sea level rise pose a particularly high risk to Gulf Coast schools. The Louisiana Department of Education told CNN that more than a year after Hurricane Ida hit the state, two schools serving nearly 900 students are still out of business.
But other natural disasters keep students out of other parts of the country.
In California, wildfires have been the leading cause of recent school closures. The 2018-2019 school year set a record with more than 2,200 closures due to fires, according to data obtained by CNN from the California Department of Education.
More than a year ago, 17 inches of rain fell in 24 hours in middle Tennessee. The devastating flood destroyed Waverly’s elementary and middle schools. Humphreys County Superintendent Richard Rye told CNN that some students are still using an auditorium with classroom partitions while they wait for their schools to be rebuilt.
That disruption has had a direct impact on student grades, Rye says, as his students’ test scores have fallen behind the rest of the state. Rye described the problem as a compound problem: not only was the school damaged, but students, staff and teachers also lost their homes to the flooding, putting even more pressure on an already fragile education system.
“We were on the ‘needs improvement’ list last year,” Rye said. “This is a struggle for us, because the educational environment has been disrupted throughout our region. But we are doing everything we can in that.”
A January study by the Government Accountability Office found that more than 300 major presidentially-declared disasters have occurred in the United States since 2017, “with devastating impacts on K-12 schools including trauma and mental health issues among students and staff, lost instructional time and financial strain.” ».
Laura Schifter, senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, says America’s schools are typically old and unprepared for extreme weather. And he emphasizes that schools that have already been affected must better understand their future climate risk and work to build more resilient structures as they recover, “because climate change will absolutely affect it.”
“Our public schools right now get a D+ on America’s infrastructure report card, so these impacts we’ve seen in buildings flooding and classrooms being damaged will only continue as climate change worsens,” Schifter said. CNN.
Schifter described the resilient school infrastructure as being “equipped to absorb rainwater and reduce flooding inside the school” and “equipped with solar power and batteries to keep the lights on.”
In Florida, Melissa Wright’s son will soon face a new learning environment.
The Lee County School District announced plans to accommodate the locked-out students at another school in the county. And he hopes to resume learning on a regular basis from Monday, as additional schools resume on October 19 and 31. Some schools will share a building and other students will temporarily study virtually.
The reopening plan requires that the school buildings meet all safety criteria, Superintendent Christopher Bernier said at the last school board meeting, including reliable power and a safe drinking water supply.
Bernier said the windows and walls of hurricane-damaged schools will be sealed “as best we can.”