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Hey! Ho! Let's GAO!

My World's on Fire
Hey! Ho! Let's GAO!
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #76 • View online
Thanks for reading My World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, subscribe here for disaster deep-dives, Q&As, and context in your inbox every Thursday evening.

Courtesy of Peter Handke
Courtesy of Peter Handke
Welcome to the first 2022 edition of MWOF’s (hopefully) painless guide to wonky disaster conversations being had at high levels of government!
It’s something I like to do in here every now and then, because I think it’s really important to have an idea of what’s informing officials who have the power to make disaster decisions. So, in today’s newsletter I’m going to break down some findings from a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about the impacts of disasters across US school districts. 
Let’s start with…
What’s the GAO?
The GAO is a non-partisan agency that investigates and evaluates how federal dollars are spent and government agencies perform. Their findings are shared with members of Congress and relevant agencies depending on the subject at hand.
So what does the report say about schools and disasters?
The key takeaway from the GAO report is that schools in socially vulnerable communities deal with extra challenges in the disaster recovery process. This includes the actual rebuilding work, as well as addressing the emotional and academic needs of students. The GAO also found that the majority of schools that received federal funding during its research period had an above-average number of socially vulnerable students.
Some quick context around those conclusions: 
  • The agency defined communities and students as “socially vulnerable” based on four factors: “(1) free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, (2) racial or ethnic minority status, (3) English learner status, and (4) disability status.”
  • The time frame for this research was 2017-2019, so it does not take into account the pandemic.
  • According to the GAO, about 18% of public school students attended schools that received federal disaster recovery dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and/or the Department of Education during that period.
Report authors spoke with staff from five socially vulnerable school districts that received federal funding, and their experiences color the need for that money—and the difficulty of getting it. According to the report, each district applied for multiple streams of funding to try to cover their recovery costs, and the process is described as “complex, lengthy, and required significant administrative effort.”
“Officials in two state emergency management offices and one state educational agency said prior disaster experience is necessary to successfully navigate the complexities of obtaining and coordinating funding,” the report says.
Mental health was another significant area of concern the GAO identified, particularly due to the reported lack of resources to address the needs of both students and staff. Officials from multiple states expressed an inability to fund or find mental health providers as support channels dried up in the months and years after the disaster.
And many schools in vulnerable communities are dealing with repairs for an extended amount of time, which can be traumatic in itself. A principal at a school damaged during Hurricane Harvey detailed the experience of students and staff commuting to a temporary school and contending with construction long after the storm. It left them feeling like they were in “survival mode for years,” the principal told the GAO.
Trauma can “follow students into the classroom,” the report explains, affecting their abilities to learn. This can be particularly pronounced for students who have additional stressors or vulnerabilities, according to educational agency officials who spoke with the agency.
A lot of these findings are consistent with existing disaster research—we know that disasters do not impact all populations equally, nor does disaster aid reach all populations equally—but putting it in the context of schools and thinking about ways they can be better supported by federal programs is key to that larger recovery process.
“The ability of schools to withstand and recover from disasters is critical to community recovery,” the GAO report says at one point, summing up the need for all of this analysis. 
But despite that: “neither FEMA nor Education gather comprehensive data on the extent to which school districts experience effects of natural disasters.”
This is a super-condensed look at a 37-page report—here’s the link to the entire thing again in case you’re interested in learning more.
Some other reading on this subject you might want to check out:
My World's on Fire book club update
You guys seriously showed up! I can’t wait to talk Olga Dies Dreaming with a number of you next month. The MWOF bookclub even got a shoutout from Olga author Xochitl Gonzalez on Twitter!
Xochitl Gonzalez
I am so excited about this and thinking and talking about OLGA in this context!
Sign up here if you want to join, and plan for a virtual chat about the book on February 24th. 
As always...
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