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National Commission on Children and Disasters: 2010 Report to the President and Congress

Public Health Emergency Preparedness

This resource was part of AHRQ's Public Health Emergency Preparedness program, which was discontinued on June 30, 2011, in a realignment of Federal efforts.

Now this resource is supported by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).

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7. Elementary and Secondary Education



Recommendation 7.1: Congress and Federal agencies should improve the preparedness of schools and school districts by providing additional support to States.
  • Congress and ED should award disaster preparedness grants to State education agencies to oversee, coordinate, and improve disaster planning, training, and exercises statewide and ensure that all districts within the State meet certain baseline criteria.
  • DHS/FEMA should partner with ED to provide funding and other resources to support disaster preparedness efforts of State and local education agencies, including collaborative planning, training, and exercises with emergency management officials.

In their lifetimes, children may spend more than 2,340 days in elementary and secondary schools,267 making it imperative that schools and school districts are prepared to protect children's safety and manage the complicated, multifaceted issues that arise when disaster strikes. Over 49 million students attended approximately 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools in 13,900 school districts in 2009, with an additional 5.8 million students enrolled in 33,700 private schools.268-269 Although many schools and school districts have developed emergency management plans, many plans and preparedness activities are not aligned with Federally-recommended practices.270 For example, a 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) survey of a sample of public school districts revealed that approximately 56 percent had no plans in place for continuing student education if schools are closed for an extended period, and many of their plans did not include accommodations for students with special needs.271

The Commission recommends that additional Federal and State support is needed to improve the preparedness of schools and school districts and ensure that children are properly protected before, during, and after disasters. Sixty-two percent of school officials from surveyed school districts reported challenges to implementing emergency management programs, including insufficient equipment, training, and staff with emergency planning expertise.272 While most school districts practice their emergency management plans annually within the school community, the GAO estimates that "over one-quarter of school districts with emergency management plans have never trained with first responders and over two-thirds of school districts do not regularly (i.e., at least once a year) train with community partners on how to implement their school plans."273 During the Commission's January 2010 field visit to Iowa, school officials in that State noted that school officials are not required by State law to collaboratively plan with emergency management officials, which results in differing levels of coordination in each county and school district.274

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools manages the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) program as a means to deliver grant funding directly to school districts for preparedness and emergency management initiatives and to provide technical assistance to districts. REMS provides discretionary, competitive grants to an estimated 150 school districts per year, with an average award of $253,000.275 REMS requires grantees to develop comprehensive emergency management plans addressing all hazards, provide training for school personnel, and coordinate efforts with State or local homeland security plans. As the Commission noted in its Interim Report, REMS should receive continued support since it is a mechanism that can yield model programs and test various cost- and time-effective approaches to improving school preparedness. However, since 2003, the REMS program distributed 815 grants to Local Education Agencies (LEAs), serving a small proportion of the 14,200 public school districts nationwide.276

In its Interim Report, the Commission initially recommended the expansion of REMS toward the goal of establishing a school disaster preparedness program with appropriate funding to support a dedicated and sustained funding stream to all State Education Agencies (SEAs).277 The Commission envisioned SEAs taking a leadership role in improving, overseeing, and coordinating disaster preparedness throughout the State. States would provide funding, training, guidance, and technical assistance to LEAs to support a consistent level of preparedness statewide. In response to queries from the Commission, ED indicated that it would consider ways to adapt REMS to meet the desired role for SEAs, but noted that the current level of resources would be insufficient to provide sustained funding to all SEAs. In addition, ED reported that new investments in elementary and secondary education should be consistent with the goals and direction of the Administration.

The Commission maintains that the Nation's students deserve to attend well-prepared schools. However, in recognition of the current fiscal environment and trend toward competitive funding to award innovation—as exemplified in the Administration's Race to the Top initiative and blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the Commission recommends that competitive disaster preparedness grants be awarded to States through the REMS program as an initial step toward developing innovative models designed to ensure a higher level of school preparedness statewide.

A competitive grant program would award funds to SEAs to develop statewide disaster preparedness initiatives. These initiatives could establish preparedness criteria for schools and school districts within the State that build on the REMS model, identify and propose solutions to correct deficiencies, and provide training, guidance, technical assistance, and funding to LEAs. In this manner, REMS funds could reach more school districts and establish greater accountability, efficiency, and consistency within States.

An overarching goal for the program could be the development of best practices and statewide models that could be shared with and adopted by other States. A more specific goal of this program could be to encourage collaboration between education and emergency management officials in preparedness efforts, including planning, training, and exercises throughout the State.

In Chapter 1 of this report, the Commission recommends that ED and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) establish a formal interagency agreement to pool resources to make funding, technical assistance, training, and other resources available to support the disaster preparedness efforts of State and local education agencies and schools. Although school districts are currently eligible to receive certain DHS emergency preparedness funds, few States provide DHS funding to school districts.278 An interagency program could ensure that DHS preparedness funds reach schools and would promote collaborative planning, training, and exercises between education and emergency management officials at the State and local levels.

Recommendation 7.2: Congress and ED should enhance the ability of school personnel to support children who are traumatized, grieving, or otherwise recovering from a disaster.
  • Congress and ED should award funds to States to implement and evaluate training and professional development programs in basic skills in providing support to grieving students and students in crisis and establish statewide requirements related to teacher certification and recertification.

Teachers, school administrators, and other school personnel should be trained to understand the impact of trauma and loss on learning, and to provide basic supportive services that will help students adjust to a disaster and its aftermath and will promote academic achievement. Children can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, bereavement, and other behavioral problems, such as increased aggression or delinquency, after disasters.279 Common effects of crises on students include: school absenteeism; school behavior problems, such as aggressive or unlawful behavior; academic failure; and exacerbation of preexisting educational problems.280 On average, displaced students in Louisiana public schools in the year following Hurricane Katrina performed worse in all subjects and grades compared to other students, and experienced a variety of problems related to attendance, mental health, behavior, and academic performance.281 Without sufficient training, educators may not be aware that a student is having difficulty adjusting or coping, and as a result, the student's behaviors, learning patterns, or social interactions may be misinterpreted or mislabeled.282

As noted in the Commission's Interim Report, teachers and school administrators receive little if any training around how to support children in the aftermath of a disaster to promote adjustment and academic achievement.283 During the Commission's January 2010 field visit to Iowa, school officials reported that they were unprepared to recognize the warning signs of depression, bereavement, or other behavioral and emotional issues in students following a disaster.284 Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, school personnel revealed that the greatest barriers to helping students following the storms were not being aware of the mental health programs they should use and the shortage of trained staff to implement these programs.285

The Commission recommends that funds be awarded to States to implement training and professional development programs for teachers and school personnel that impart basic skills in providing support to affected students, and to establish statewide training requirements tied to professional certification and recertification. The Commission believes that the most effective way to ensure that teachers and other school personnel receive the basic training necessary to effectively teach and support children in crisis is to include such training at the pre-service level as a condition of certification/licensure and at the in-service level as a condition of recertification/license renewal. However, requirements for new teacher certification and professional development fall predominately within the purview of the States and ED lacks the authority to require disaster mental health training. The Commission recommends that ED support a competitive grant program to incentivize the implementation of State disaster mental health training programs, including requirements for teacher certification and professional development. Grantees would be expected to pilot and evaluate training materials and methods to develop an evidence base and best practices that could serve as models for other States to adopt.

Model training tools should be developed at the national level and made available free to all States, whether or not the State is awarded funds, for the use of schools of education and professional organizations. Training for teachers and school personnel on how to support children following a disaster should impart basic skills and knowledge in the following areas: the impact of trauma and bereavement on children and their learning; likely reactions; strategies for providing psychological first aid, brief supportive services, and bereavement support; and indications for referral for additional mental health services.

Recommendation 7.3: Ensure that school systems recovering from disasters are provided immediate resources to reopen and restore the learning environment in a timely manner and provide support for displaced students and their host schools.
  • Congress should create a permanent funding mechanism to support recovery for schools and students.
  • Congress should establish an emergency contingency fund within the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program and expeditiously provide grants to school districts serving an influx of displaced children.
  • Congress and ED should support the immediate provision of expert technical assistance and consultation regarding services and interventions to address disaster mental health needs of students and school personnel.
  • DHS/FEMA, ED, and other Federal agencies should clarify, consolidate, and publicize information related to the recovery programs, assistance, and services (e.g., transportation to schools) currently available to school systems through the Stafford Act and other Federal sources.

In the aftermath of a disaster, school systems must reopen and return to their normal routines quickly in order to mitigate the traumatic effects of the event on students.286 Seven months after Hurricane Katrina, only 20 out of 130 schools in the New Orleans Public School system had reopened, with most buildings requiring decontamination due to environmental hazards following the hurricane.287 Schools that were able to reopen faced overcrowded classrooms, a reduction of teaching staff, and a lack of school books, computers, teaching supplies, and musical and sports equipment.288

Under the Stafford Act, public and certain nonprofit private schools are eligible to receive funding for the repair or replacement of buildings and their contents, including furnishings and equipment, the temporary relocation of classrooms, debris removal assistance, and emergency work to ensure access to the building and communication systems.289 However, to support the recovery of students and restore a normal learning environment, affected schools need a variety of assistance and services beyond repairing buildings and replacing contents as provided through the Stafford Act.

Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there was a disparity between the assistance FEMA provided and the needs of students, families, and communities affected by the storms.290 In light of this gap and in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Congress passed the Hurricane Education Recovery Act (HERA), a one-time emergency grant for the 2005-2006 school year providing funds for many important services to help restart school operations in impacted areas in addition to providing instructional support for displaced students and their host schools.291

Under HERA's Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations program, funding was issued to SEAs in Gulf States impacted by the storm through ED for the purchase of equipment, supplies, books, and other services necessary to reopen schools and restore learning environments, such as hiring additional staff for psychological, social, behavioral, nursing, and counseling services for students and staff, and supporting expenses incurred to recruit teachers and other school personnel. HERA also established the Emergency Impact Aid Program, which supported instructional opportunities and support services for displaced students and offset the costs incurred by host schools for educating the 372,000292 students displaced as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At the time, no mechanism was in place to support these kinds of recovery programs for affected communities or receiving districts and States, and the Act was not signed into law until three months after the storms,293 forcing schools and school districts to await the needed assistance. Currently, there is no permanent source of funding in place should such a disaster occur again, as HERA provided a one-time authorization.

The Commission recommends that Congress authorize a permanent funding mechanism to ensure that school systems recovering from disasters have access to assistance and services needed to reopen and restore the learning environment in a timely manner and provide support for displaced students and the schools that host them. In 2010, Senator Landrieu of Louisiana introduced the Child Safety, Care, and Education Continuity Act, which would reauthorize some of the programs that expired under HERA in addition to new measures that strive to provide the services necessary to schools and students for a timely recovery following a disaster.294 As Louisiana's State Superintendent of Education testified at a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery: "State[s], districts, schools, and even, more importantly, students and their families, need to know that there is a permanent and instantaneous funding source in place if their lives are disrupted by tragedy ... If a permanent fund were to be established, it would accelerate financial support to receiving districts and states and would provide instantaneous funding to help educators and support displaced students who are in great need of high-quality services."295

Another mechanism through which the Federal Government can support the educational needs of children displaced by disaster is the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, under the McKinney-Vento Act.296 Most students displaced by a disaster may be considered "homeless" under the Act's definition.297 Funds provided to school districts through the EHCY program may be used to support displaced children and youth through outreach and identification, enrollment assistance, transportation assistance, school records transfers, immunization referrals, tutoring, counseling, school supplies, assessment, case management, professional development for educators, and referrals for community services. However, the current statutory formula for allocating EHCY dollars does not provide a mechanism for immediately providing assistance in times of disaster.298 Moreover, only 11 percent of all school districts receive EHCY funding.299

The Commission recommends that Congress authorize the creation of an EHCY emergency contingency fund, from which grants to cover needed educational support services could be expeditiously targeted to school districts serving an influx of displaced children. There have been two supplemental McKinney-Vento appropriations in response to recent disasters: one in response to the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes and the other in response to the 2008 Midwest floods and Hurricane Ike. In both instances, appropriations arrived well after the disasters.300 Authorization for a permanent contingency fund would provide a mechanism for supporting needed services for displaced students in an expeditious manner. School districts in Texas that received an influx of students following Hurricane Katrina testified that the presence of a strong McKinney-Vento program was critical in enabling schools to manage new students, including seamlessly integrating students with and without educational records into their systems, particularly students residing in shelters and motels.301

In addition, a crucial aspect of restoring a normal learning environment following a disaster involves ensuring that students and school personnel receive mental and behavioral health support to mitigate the disaster's affects on academic achievement. Following a disaster, schools should be provided technical assistance and consultation by subject matter experts on developing a recovery plan to promote student adjustment. The Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) program provides these and other mental-health related services for schools following a traumatic or violent event such as a school shooting or suicide; however, Presidentially declared disasters are not eligible events.302

The Commission recommends that Congress and ED provide sufficient funds to support the immediate provision of expert technical assistance and consultation regarding services and interventions to address disaster mental health needs of students and school personnel, including bereavement, reactions to trauma, and other adjustment difficulties that are likely after a disaster. Such consultation and technical assistance should be proactively offered (but not required) at no cost to the school and with no requirement for application. Additional services should include just-in-time training on bereavement support, psychological first aid, brief supportive services, and guidelines on referral for mental health services; provision of guidance materials; information on other resources, services, and potential funding opportunities to address longer-term or ongoing needs; and linkage to relevant professional organizations, agencies, and programs. ED should establish agreements with entities that focus on providing mental health consultation services to schools and have the capability to deliver such services in a timely manner.

Finally, the Commission recommends that FEMA, ED, and other Federal agencies should clarify, consolidate, and publicize information related to the recovery programs, assistance, and services currently available to school systems through the Stafford Act and other Federal sources.303 Without comprehensive information on available programs and reimbursable expenses, school systems may be unable to take advantage of useful recovery resources. For example, FEMA should clarify its ability to provide reimbursement for school transportation expenses. FEMA's ability to cover such expenses is not documented in guidance or communicated clearly through Regional Offices to affected States or communities. During the Commission's January 2010 field visit to Iowa, school officials were informed by a FEMA official that FEMA can, in certain instances, reimburse school districts for additional costs associated with transporting displaced students to their schools of origin. However, school and emergency management officials were previously unaware of this, and thus failed to request such reimbursement from FEMA.304

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