Educators share challenges Hurricane Harvey brought in 2017-18 school year

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As hurricane season kicks off once again in Texas, many people across the region are still reeling from the effects of last season’s Hurricane Harvey. 

The Texas Tribune, a media partner of Community Impact Newspaper, hosted a panel of Houston-area educators in “Lessons from a Storm: A Conversation on Public Ed and Hurricane Harvey” on Tuesday at Houston Community College West Loop Campus.

Panelists included Rhonda Howard, a social worker in Houston ISD; Jennifer Mann, an elementary school principal in Wharton ISD; Anh-Minh Nguyen, a graduating senior in Alief ISD; and Tiffany Robinson, a secondary science instructional specialist in AISD.

The panelists agreed losing instructional time and helping emotionally distraught students and staff recover made for a difficult year. Even those who were not physically affected by the storm have felt the effects over the last several months, Howard said.

Howard said symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in children are similar to symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, including irritability, irritation and behavior issues. For instance, students may react disrespectfully when teachers ask for homework assignments, she said.

“But what’s underneath, what’s going on with that child?” she said. “Maybe that child didn’t have pencils and paper at home to do homework. Maybe that child didn’t have a safe place to do that homework.”

Dealing with trauma 

A survey by the state found more than 13,000 public school teachers were homeless after Harvey—living in cars, hotels or with friends and family until they could return to their homes safely. In fact, many still have been unable to return home, Mann said.

“You have staff that are in need of lots of things, [and]they are all living in situations that they’re fine in the beginning but now you’re starting to see … the stress,” she said.

At Alief Early College High School, Nguyen said teachers helped fill in as extracurricular activity sponsors when their coworkers had to deal with insurance companies and contractors working on their homes.

“It brought out the good in a lot of us because it pushed our students to work harder despite all the obstacles and challenges that happened,” he said. “I think overall, this next coming school year our teachers and our students are understanding each other a lot better after the storm.”

Similarly, at Elsik Ninth Grade Center, Robinson said colleagues pitched in to support their peers who were in need as 78 percent of the staff was affected by the storm.

Robinson said her campus holds three of the five high school end-of-course exams, so pressure to pass these tests are already high for students and teachers. This pressure was only exacerbated for those who had to worry about having food or a roof over their head at the end of the day, she said.

“At the beginning of the year they’re stressed, and then you have Harvey and that increases the stress in addition to the staff and some of the students coming to us [not having]what they feel they should have on a day-to-day basis,” Robinson said. “If you don’t have what you need on a day-to-day basis, you’re not as concerned about education.”

Losing instructional time

Although districts in the designated disaster areas received a waiver from the state for the missed instructional time at the beginning of the 2017-18 year, schools had to get creative to make up the time lost—about 11 days for most districts.

Before students return to school at Elsik, teachers reconfigured the calendar for the entire year ahead. Robinson said biology teachers were forced to refocus much of their energy on project-based learning activities and field trips related to the 16 standards tested on EOC exams to ensure students would be prepared to pass.

After-school tutorials were available, but participation was low because many students had added responsibilities after school to help support their families due to Harvey, so Robinson said it became necessary to pull students from elective classes such as physical education and art to give them more time to study.

“This year it was so hard to get the kids to stay after school,” she said. “This year they really did have to work. So we had more students this year that could not stay after school because they had to work or because they had to watch a sibling.”

WISD held optional “focus camps” on Saturdays, allowing teachers to spend more time teaching the state standards students would be tested on at the end of the year, Mann said.

“When something like this happens for the normal person, you would think, ‘Ten days is not that big of a deal,’” she said. “[But] it really took a toll for us because when you’re trying to finagle and figure out exactly how you’re going to get your curriculum in in a shorter period of time, it takes a lot of extra work.”

Lacking resources

Mann said she hopes the state provides additional support and training for educators learning to help their students cope with trauma. Wharton is such a small district that she said she often feels forgotten seeing resources go to larger districts in the disaster area.

After Harvey, Mann said 200 students left the district, which significantly affects the amount of funding WISD receives from the state. She also applied for additional funding from the state to hire a social worker, but this money did not come until April.

While academics are important, Mann said she would like to see more investment in the social and emotional health of students affected by Harvey.

“I am concerned about the testing and how that is such a focus,” Mann said. “You’re kind of on a balance beam because you want to hold people accountable, but you also know they’re going home to a situation that’s different than things they’ve ever had to deal with.”

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Danica Smithwick
Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper in May 2016 after graduating with a journalism degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. She covers public education, local government, business, demographic trends, real estate development, nonprofits and more in the Cy-Fair community.
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