In Sarasota County, Florida, a school year meant to be the closest to normal after three years of disruption from the pandemic has instead been severed by a storm.
Sarasota County Public Schools posted on its website “closed until further notice” just a few days after Hurricane Ian’s punishing winds obliterated parts of Florida’s west coast, flooded much of the region and cut off electricity, phone and internet access. Across the country, wildfires, heat, floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters have eaten away at class time in these still-early days of the 2022-2023 school year, one that was supposed to be critical to helping kids make the most of their time with teachers after the pandemic disrupted school three school years in a row.
Some of the first test scores capturing the effects of the pandemic show that American students have lost a staggering amount of ground in reading and math over the course of the health crisis. And the gap in the performance of white and Black students only got worse.
But for many students, this school year is far from stable. In California, schools in the path of fires closed for days, or smoke made the air quality so poor schools not damaged by flames had to be shuttered, too. Floods ate into instruction in Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia this year, to name a few. It was too hot to hold classes in parts of Virginia, Baltimore and Philadelphia at different points over the last several months. And at the start of the current school year, catastrophic flooding in eastern Kentucky took lives and school days, and state lawmakers said districts need to make up only 15 of the missed class days.
Things are only likely to get worse. At one point ahead of Hurricane Ian, almost every school district in Florida had canceled classes, some for an entire week. The long-term effects are hard to gauge, said Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist at the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association, which creates assessments for school districts. Kuhfeld has written about what it will take to help students make up some of the academic ground lost to the pandemic.
“It’s a challenge that school districts are going to be facing more and more,” Kuhfeld told Grid.
Echoes of the recent past
Just a few months ago, Knott County, Kentucky, Superintendent Brent Hoover was where Sarasota County schools found themselves a few weeks ago.
“I do remember: I delayed schools until further notice,” said Hoover, who had just found time to eat his lunch near the end of his work day a few minutes before speaking with Grid.
The first day of school was set for Aug. 10, but heavy rains on July 28 triggered flash flooding and mudslides. Hoover closed schools, picking a date, Sept. 19, for a delayed first day of school based on nothing but hope.
“We were within hours of not making that deadline,” Hoover said.
One elementary school had as much as 3 feet of water wash through classrooms, filling it with muck and debris. At least two of his students died in the floods. His father’s home, the house Hoover grew up in, was destroyed, along with everything in it.
Hoover, who has spent 28 years — his entire career — working in the school district, spent his first year as superintendent redesigning the way students are taught and creating a districtwide curriculum for all grades.
His second year started off with the floods.
“This year was our catch-up year,” he said. “We’re working overtime to get these kids caught up.”
In Kentucky, Hoover said, “we are adjusting our instruction, identifying student weaknesses.”
“Hopefully we can get them caught up in a short amount of time,” he said. He is also adding some days to the end of the school calendar to make up for the chunk of time lost at the start of the year.
A longtime problem
Long before the pandemic, the amount of time kids spent in school across the country varied, from 160 days in Colorado to 186 days in Kansas, and from 720 hours of class per year in Arizona to 1,260 hours in Texas, according to new research on how much time students really spend learning at school. Even in the best of times, researchers found, students miss a lot of instructional time because they skip class or are suspended from class as a form of punishment or because their teachers are absent.
In a review of the research about the connection between academic achievement and learning time, one study says that “the literature paints a compelling picture that increasing time can increase student achievement.” And perhaps not surprisingly, they found that weather events, even snow days and other “unscheduled” cuts to learning time, can lead to a decline in students’ academic performance.
One of the researchers studying instructional time noted that even when school systems can add time to try to make up what is lost to a weather event, it can fall short.
“A makeup day added to the end of the school year or during a school break is likely not providing the same quality of learning environment,” said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University. “So even if all the lost days are made up, there is still the possibility for negative effects.”
States should consider more than just time when sorting out how to help students recover from situations that lead to school closures, added Sarah Novicoff of Stanford University, who co-authored the study. Spending money to add time is one piece, but so is spending on other resources, such as school counselors.
Pandemic lessons and warnings for the future
Some schools are using pandemic aid dollars to add tutoring to the school day every day, in person or online, or several times a week, sometimes on Saturdays. The ideal version, according to research, of this tutoring is in person, one on one or in small groups, and frequent, and doesn’t require students to come early or stay after school. “If not climate change, [it could be] further outbreaks of covid that cause staff shortages and things like that,” Kuhfeld said.
While remote teaching became commonplace during the pandemic, it is hardly a solution for students who miss class because of a bad storm or other weather event, assuming the power and internet are still working.
“We have more contact now than we used to between teachers and students,” Kuhfeld said, but there is also “pretty strong evidence that remote instruction is not a substitute [for in-person schooling] in the same way.”
On top of that, natural disasters and health crises come with all sorts of trauma — losing a family member or home — that can haunt students, she said. And some families will lose far more than others.
“Natural disasters don’t hit people equally,” Kuhfeld said.
There is only more to come, if not for Sarasota, the world, with the number and cost of disasters increasing over time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. An arm of the World Bank created a program nearly 10 years ago specifically to help countries improve their school buildings in light of a growing number of climate-related and other natural disasters. As many as 175 million children around the world are affected by natural disasters each year. If kids manage to stay in school through all of it, research shows heat interferes with kids’ ability to learn, as does the pollution from wildfires.
For Sarasota students, the news has changed. One set of schools reopened Oct. 10. Another set opened Monday. For two others, Tuesday is set to be reopening day.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.