By Maria Rowan, Education Program Specialist, OESE, Disaster Recovery Unit
Since 2017, over 300 presidentially declared major disasters have occurred across all 50 states and all U.S. territories. In 2021 alone, the U.S. experienced 56 major natural disasters in the form of fires, floods, hurricanes, mudslides, tornados, and severe storms. Whether we witness the aftermath first-hand in our own communities or through our work with affected schools, we know disasters like these can negatively impact the emotional, academic, financial, and physical well-being of students. In 2018, to better assist schools in dealing with impacts of natural disasters ED’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education formed a Disaster Recovery Unit (DRU) with the goal of increasing resources dedicated to education disaster recovery efforts.
This month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report commending the many ways ED’s DRU supports the needs of students and their school districts recovering from natural disasters—a testament to how important ED’s disaster recovery work is to school communities across the country.
ED’s disaster recovery efforts are part of the broader government approach to supporting schools facing major disasters. The Biden Administration is working across government to address the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters. These efforts include a $500 million investment in energy-efficient upgrades to schools and technical assistance to support districts’ financing of infrastructure upgrades from the Department of Energy, made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The law also features $10 million for diesel school bus retrofits as well as $300,000 in rebates per electric school bus purchase from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to collaborating closely with federal partners, ED is reviewing every available tool to support sustainable, resilient, 21st century learning environments.
One DRU program the GAO report spotlights is ED’s Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations (Restart) program, which supports disaster recovery in K-12 schools. The report notes,
“Through its Restart grant program, ED helped support a range of school recovery efforts after 2017-2019 natural disasters, awarding nearly $940 million in six states and three U.S. territories. School districts used funds to make physical repairs, acquire portable classrooms, and provide mental health and academic services to students, among other things. ED also worked proactively to help applicants with urgent recovery needs, such as by advancing a portion of anticipated grant funding early to help jumpstart recovery projects. Through such efforts, the Restart program played a key role in helping schools resume operations and meet students’ needs following disasters.”
Through working with disaster recovery grantees, ED often has the privilege of hearing how DRU programs have helped schools following a disaster, but this GAO assessment allowed us to understand even more deeply how critical education-focused disaster programs can be in addressing school’s disaster recovery needs, particularly in historically underserved communities. The report discusses how children from low-income backgrounds, children of color, English learners, and children with disabilities can be disproportionately affected by the adverse effects of disasters, making disaster recovery more challenging for school districts serving high proportions of students in these groups.
The report also found that the majority of school districts receiving disaster recovery grants, such as ED Restart grants, for 2017-2019 disasters served a higher-than-average proportion of students in these groups. We’re proud to see evidence that education disaster recovery programs not only support ED’s priority of meeting student’s social, emotional, and academic needs but also that of promoting equity in student access to educational resources and opportunities.
You can learn more and read the full GAO report here.