Schools in southwest Florida preemptively shut down ahead of Hurricane Ian in preparation for the destruction they knew would ensue. More than two weeks after the category 4 storm slammed into 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 most recent example of a growing trend over which education experts are increasingly sounding an alarm: More frequent and intense extreme weather events are disrupting school systems nationwide 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 ravaged by Hurricane Ian’s powerful winds, which tore down walls. The storm surge rose to the top of the school doors, destroying nearly 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: “My goodness gracious.”
Her concern soon shifted from the physical damage to her 10-year-old son’s educational future as she waits for schools in the county to reopen next week. And she worries he will fall behind amid back-to-back disasters.
“I just feel bad for him and all the students who had to go through Covid a couple of years ago – and that completely disrupted everything,” Wright said. “And now in fourth grade, which is another pretty impactful year, everything is up in the air again.”
Hurricanes and sea level rise are a particularly high risk for schools on the Gulf Coast. The Louisiana Department of Education tells CNN that more than a year after Hurricane Ida slammed into the state, two schools that educate nearly 900 students are still inoperable.
But other forms of natural disaster are throwing students off track elsewhere in the country.
In California, wildfires have been the leading cause of recent school closures. The 2018-2019 school year set the record with more than 2,200 closures due to wildfires, according to data CNN obtained from the California Department of Education.
More than a year ago, 17 inches of rain fell in just 24 hours across middle Tennessee. The torrential flooding devastated Waverly’s elementary and junior high schools. Humphreys County Superintendent Richard Rye tells CNN some students are still using an auditorium with partitions for classrooms as they wait for their schools to be rebuilt.
That disruption has had a direct impact on students’ grades, Rye says, with his students test scores lagging behind the rest of the state. Rye described the problem as a compound issue – not only was the school damaged, but students, staff and teachers also lost 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. “That’s a struggle for us because the educational environment has been disrupted throughout our whole county. But we are doing the best we can on that.”
A January study by the Government Accountability Office found that more than 300 presidentially-declared major disasters have occurred since 2017 across the United States, with “devastating effects on K-12 schools including trauma and mental health issues among students and staff, lost instructional time and financial strain.”
Laura Schifter, a senior fellow with the Aspen Institute, says America’s schools are typically old and unprepared for the more extreme weather. And she emphasizes that schools that have already been impacted must work to better understand their future climate risk and build more resilient structures as they recover, because “climate change is going to absolutely impact them.”
“Our public schools right now they received a D+ on the American infrastructure report card, so these impacts that we’ve seen in terms of buildings being flooded and classrooms being damaged, these will only continue to occur as climate change worsens,” Schifter told CNN.
Schifter described resilient school infrastructure as being “equipped to absorb rainwater and reduce flooding within the school” and “equipped with solar power and battery power to ensure that the lights can stay on.”
In Florida, Melissa Wright’s son will soon face a new learning environment.
The Lee County School District announced plans to host stranded students at another school in the county. And it hopes to resume learning on a rolling basis beginning Monday, with additional schools resuming on October 19 and 31. Some schools will share a building and other students will temporarily learn virtually.
The reopening plans are contingent on school buildings meeting all safety criteria, superintendent Christopher Bernier said at a recent school board meeting, including that they have reliable power and a safe supply of drinking water.
Bernier sais the schools’ windows and walls, which were damaged by the hurricane, will be sealed up “as best we can.”