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Schooling and hurricanes

Published: 
Tuesday, September 19, 2017

So how’s Bernard doing, I asked. Two weeks after he had gone up to Florida to start college, Irma hit. He’s fine, was the answer but classes haven’t started, university is being used as a hurricane shelter. Bit of stress, no? First time away from home, new surroundings, foreign accents, need to start college career on the right foot, hurricane... stress!

In the midst of the horror of wind and flood and death it is easy to forget that not only adults, not only college students, but children caught in hurricanes or other disasters can suffer from trauma and mourn far longer than adults realise. This can affect not only how well they perform at school but also the trajectory of their lives. Children can be adversely affected for up to five years after a disaster. Five years off a child’s early educational life can be a serious setback. They may never recover from it.

Problems start early. Apart from those at home or in the shelter there are simple school things that we don’t usually think about. What do you do about school books? School uniforms? School transportation?

The first year post-disaster constitutes what have been referred to as the recoil, post-impact, and initial recovery phases... during which time many children are forced to relocate, change schools, and cope for the first time with the loss of a loved one.

Children are flexible and do get used to living in different, difficult conditions but in many cases, they don’t. Adults don’t always see how children react internally and expect them to bounce back quickly when routines are restarted. But children do struggle, finding it difficult to concentrate, do schoolwork and sleep. Some are scared to leave home for school, fearful something will happen to them or their families. At school, some will act out, leading to suspension and expulsion, while others can’t concentrate.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is almost always present in some form and can last for up to five years and decrease academic performance.

Five years after Katrina, one experience in Louisiana noted that 34 per cent of affected primary and secondary students were at least one year behind in school. They were also five times more likely than their peers nationwide to have symptoms consistent with serious emotional disturbances with sleeping, eating, anxiety etc.

 

Children around the world react similarly to disaster despite differences in cultures and resources. In April and May 2015 there were two devastating earthquakes in Nepal. Children there reacted exactly as did American children in New Orleans after Katrina. The poorest were the hardest hit and in those countries that have no post-disaster plan, children suffer the most.

Experience has found that the most important way to help children recover is to build and maintain supportive relationships. This begins at home. Children react to their parent’s emotional state. Calm parents usually mean calm children.

Going to school also settles things. It gives parents a chance to clean up, without having children underneath. Children also want to go to school, see how their friends are and exchange experiences. All of this is comforting.

Because of this, it is crucial that rebuilding or at least restarting schools be made a priority after a disaster.

If there is money, schools can offer free breakfast and lunch for the first few weeks. School uniform policies can be relaxed for the first term. Students can be excused from having all the necessary school supplies. This is especially important in the 15 to 18 age group, ie those in the latter stages of their secondary school experience and who have the most to lose. The effect of losing education can be devastating on them.

Finally, teachers have a critical role to play in this calming atmosphere but a serious problem is that, in the wake of disaster, teachers need support too, so any plan of action needs to include teachers.