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Hurricane Ida's Impact On Students Could Be Worse Than Katrina, Expert Says

Hurricane Ida has closed schools for more than 250,000 students across Louisiana.
Brandon Bell
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Hurricane Ida has closed schools for more than 250,000 students across Louisiana.

Hurricane Ida has closed schools for more than 250,000 students across Louisiana, according to a tally by NPR. Districts in some of the hardest-hit areas, including Orleans and Jefferson Parish, have not yet announced a reopening date. School leaders have had their hands full so far trying to make sure staff and students are safe, whether they stayed in town or evacuated, and assessing damage to their buildings.

Like students around the country, Louisiana's children became well-versed in virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic. But as member station WWNO reports, virtual learning isn't an option for many students right now: The hurricane caused widespread power outages, and service is being slowly restored across much of New Orleans. Cell and internet service is also spotty. Plus, New Orleans educators tell NPR, the storm formed so quickly, and over a weekend, that even at the best-resourced schools, students and teachers weren't able to plan ahead and take Chromebooks or hotspots home with them.

Elizabeth Ostberg runs a network of alternative public high schools and a middle school in New Orleans. The schools are collecting money to distribute $100 to families for immediate needs, including blue tarps for roofs, gas for cars and generators, food, water and temporary shelter. Ostberg's next goal is to get at least one of her school buildings open both for learning and as a cooling center during these hot summer days, with the highs around 90 degrees.

"Distance learning would only work right now with staff and students who evacuated far enough away to have power, and have computers and Internet," she wrote in a text message after a cell phone call with NPR failed. "We got all our students these [things] last year, but not this year because school was in person. So it's not that we don't want to provide it, it's that it feels impractical right now."

In early August, New Orleans Public Schools began the school year with no virtual learning. WWNO's Aubri Juhasz reports that some parents have been pushing for the return of a remote option because of fears about the delta variant. But Superintendent Henderson Lewis has stuck with his decision, citing the urgency of getting children back in classrooms to avoid losing "a generation of students."

Now, in-person learning has been interrupted yet again for a different reason.

Douglas Harris at Tulane University has researched the effects of both COVID and Hurricane Katrina on student learning. He estimates that, realistically, it could be awhile before most students in the New Orleans metro area are back in classrooms. The power needs to come back on; students have to return if they evacuated; and in some cases they may need to quarantine if they've been traveling or in close quarters in shelters or hotels.

"Possibly we have five or six weeks of essentially no learning happening, which is worse than Katrina," Harris says, in the sense that many students re-enrolled elsewhere within two weeks or so after evacuating from the 2005 storm.

This was already shaping up to be an incredibly challenging school year. After so much disruption and loss, schools were just starting to get to know their students again . Existing concerns about mental health, engagement and missed learning are now multiplied. Harris says teachers will need to triage their curriculums due to the lost time. And his research shows there are some students who, once separated from school, don't come back.

"Dropouts are my biggest concern," Harris explains. "You have a lot of students who are already on the margin of staying in school. And you're making it really difficult for them to be in school."

Patrick Dobard, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans — a nonprofit that assists charter schools with matters like professional development, curriculum and data — echoed this concern, noting that enrollment in New Orleans was down in fall 2020-2021, and down even further at the beginning of this school year. To compound the problem, schools are staring down their Oct. 1 "count date," which will determine their funding from the state based on enrollment, unless waivers are granted.

Elizabeth Ostberg says her group of alternative schools, which she founded after Katrina, is entirely focused on preventing dropouts and empowering students who have not been successful elsewhere. She says this new school year had started out brightly.

"Kids were really excited to be back in person. Classes were going well. It actually felt really good."

She's hopeful that she'll be able to keep in touch with students and get them back on track when the power comes back on.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.