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GAO: Vulnerable Schoolchildren and Districts Faced Heightened Challenges after Natural Disasters

Natural disasters can be devastating for K-12 schools—especially in areas where people are already vulnerable.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says that most school districts that received key federal recovery grants in the wake of 2017-2019 disasters had higher than average proportions of students from socially vulnerable groups (e.g., low-income families, kids with disabilities).

GAO looked at five school districts in socially vulnerable communities. District officials said that students who faced problems like housing instability or food insecurity had significant emotional trauma after disasters. They also said it was hard to access mental health care for these students.

Research shows that socially vulnerable groups—including children who are low income, minorities, English learners, or living with disabilities—are particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of disasters. Consequently, school districts serving high proportions of children in these groups may need more recovery assistance compared to districts with less vulnerable student populations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Public Assistance program and the Department of Education’s Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations (Restart) program may provide such assistance. GAO found that 57 percent of school districts receiving these key grants for 2017-2019 disasters served a higher than average proportion of students in two or more of these socially vulnerable groups, compared to 38 percent of all school districts nationwide.

Officials from five selected school districts in socially vulnerable communities told GAO of heightened challenges recovering from recent natural disasters. These challenges generally fell into four areas of recovery: emotional, academic, financial, and physical. For instance, officials said the disasters caused significant emotional trauma to students due to stressors including extended housing instability, food insecurity, parental job loss, and social disconnection. To address these needs, districts worked to obtain additional mental health and support services. But officials told the watchdog of frequent challenges in doing so. For instance, officials in two rural districts said their communities lacked sufficient qualified mental health providers.

Through its Restart grant program, the Department of Education 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. The Department 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, GAO says the Restart program played a key role in helping schools resume operations and meet students’ needs following disasters.

GAO has also recently testified on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) use of funds to assist vulnerable populations, including people with low and moderate incomes, the elderly, racial minorities, and others. 

HUD generally requires states and localities to spend 70% of funds on low- and moderate-income people, and describe how the vulnerable will be assisted. HUD officials told GAO they typically require revisions to clarify the populations defined as vulnerable, how funds will help them, and how grantees will reach out to traditionally underserved populations. According to GAO’s December 2021 report, HUD officials also noted that vulnerable populations can be difficult to define because they may vary locally and regionally based on factors such as geography, housing stock, and policy.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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