Harmful impact of natural disasters for public education

The scourge of Hurricane Maria five years ago not only left the country’s infrastructure in poor condition, but also caused the academic achievement rate of the thousands of students in the public education system in the areas most impacted by the cyclone, which were identified such as the southeast and the mountainous area, will drop by an additional 3% to that already experienced by the student population in general.

The magnitude of the effect of María on the educational life of children and young people from the most devastated towns was even greater, if aspects such as poverty or if they suffered from some type of disability are taken into account.

According to a recent study by professors from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), called “The effect of consecutive disasters on educational results,” these students had additional drops in the academic achievement index than the general population experienced by up to a 7%.

Meanwhile, students from some 22 schools that never opened due to being in disrepair after the hurricane bore the brunt. Their decline in the academic achievement index was 14%, compared to the rest of the population, the study establishes.

“Our analysis suggests that students in areas severely impacted or whose schools were permanently closed after the hurricane are more likely to have decreased academic performance and, for some students, drop out of school after a disaster,” the report states. document.

It is that María also pushed many students out of school. The study revealed that the probability of dropping out of school in eighth grade increased by 18%, especially in areas of medium impact from the hurricane.

For the 2020 earthquakes, meanwhile, the probability of school dropouts doubled in the most affected towns, which according to the study were Guánica, Guayanilla and Yauco. From 1% that was located for eighth grade students, it increased to 2%.

Given this framework, the research carried out by professors Eileen Segarra, José Caraballo Cueto, Yolanda Cordero and Héctor Cordero, from the Observatory for Public Education of Puerto Rico of the Center for Multidisciplinary Studies of Government and Public Affairs of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR ), concluded that the recent disasters that have been faced in the country have resulted in an increase in school dropouts and a decrease in academic achievement in the students of the Department of Education.

Caraballo Cueto, for his part, explained that -in order to reach such conclusions- Education provided them with specific data on each student, with their social profile and their result in the Measurement and Evaluation for Academic Transformation (META PR) system tests.

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He pointed out that the data were processed using the causal inference method, which allows observing how a phenomenon X can establish causality. He noted that this method led several economists to win a Nobel Prize in Economics.

educational leave

Beyond the numerical calculations reached, Caraballo Cueto explained that the analysis carried out allowed them to establish that after Hurricane María, “in general, there was a downward trend for most students” of their academic achievement index.

However, in more affected areas there was an even worse record. The degree of impact of the cyclone, as well as aspects related to poverty or disability were barometers to demarcate the seriousness of the results.

He opined that it was the lack of preparation of the educational system to face natural disasters that harmed the students.

“If we had well-built, well-maintained schools, well, that wouldn’t happen. But, if we have schools that have been left abandoned, that are not in good condition or that are poorly located, in flood-prone areas, well, a hurricane comes and then the school cannot be reopened and in the middle of the semester students have to be transferred, what we do is affect them doubly or impact them doubly”, pointed out the professor.

He also explained that Hurricane Maria did not cause a big difference in desertion.

“When one looks at high-impact municipalities, they were mainly from the mountains. These are municipalities that, in general, had relatively good levels of academic achievement before Hurricane María. They are low crime areas. In the region of San Juan and Humacao there was a higher dropout rate, because they already had lower rates of academic achievement… Relatively, the (students) who have the lowest academic achievement tend to drop out more than the rest of the population”, detailed the economist, who also participated in a study on school dropouts on the Island from 2015 to 2021.

However, the earthquakes at the beginning of 2020, followed by the start of the pandemic, led to schools remaining closed in the most affected areas.

“Those students lived there for several months with schools closed. Some later went to take classes in wagons and in inhospitable conditions. This doubled the probability that they have over the rest of the country of totally unsubscribing,” said Caraballo Cueto.

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The economist Segarra, for her part, regretted that COVID-19 caused the stoppage of the META tests. She alluded that the situation did not allow them to analyze how much more the academic achievement index worsened.

Still, the study concludes that “we can predict significant declines in academic achievement and school enrollment due to dropout, flight to private schools, and migration.”

In the same way, the professor demarcated that this study was carried out to reflect the impact that the multiple disasters that they have had to face in the past five years have on the student population, especially the poorest or those who suffer from some disability.

They offer their recommendations

Segarra said that the environment that has been created pushed these sectors to be more marginalized.

He explained that “understanding” the harmful effect caused by the stoppage of classes could generate public policy that improves the system and even prevents migration or school dropout.

But, more than anything, the professor called for addressing those “educational gaps” that have been generated in the past five years to prevent these young people from reaching adulthood without the necessary skills to help them become productive citizens.

“We have had interruptions after interruptions in the educational process, so we have a generation that spent a year and a half or two years without face-to-face education due to María, the tremors and the lockdown,” he said.

“There have been teachers who have done a titanic job in the conditions they are in, but the limitations are there. You have to have a plan to make sure that instead of pushing those students to finish, they get the skills they need.”

Likewise, the signs that were revealed with the study led the researchers to suggest to the government a change in public policy regarding the importance given to education in moments of natural disasters.

Mainly, it was urged to avoid the interruption of classes. As an example, it was stated that they must return to the classroom under certain flexibility standards, such as allowing them not to wear uniforms to school or not assigning assignments to be done at home.

The study highlighted that close to 82% of the student population of the Department of Education lives below poverty levels, which is why they are deprived of social and food services.

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Meanwhile, Special Education students are also detained from therapy services and other specialized aid.

“If the education system does not improve its ability to quickly reopen and restore services after a disaster, the number of school-age children will continue to decline due to migration,” the study summarizes.

React Education

The Secretary of Education, Eliezer Ramos Parés, for his part, in written statements sent to Primera Hora, explained that the report projects issues that in Education “we have detected and are working on for the benefit of our students and school communities.”

“Without a doubt, emergencies and natural disasters have an adverse effect on the learning processes of students in public and private schools. In the same way, it strongly impacts the families of these students who, due to these disasters or emergencies, sometimes lack essential services that allow them to help their children. This has an impact on moving them from schools, which could create school dropouts,” said the head of the agency.

He assured that the Department of Education has made progress with the issue of technology “providing each student with computers, offering ‘vouchers’ for Internet access as well as granting ‘hot spots’ in some cases.” He also stated that these aids have been extended to teachers “to ensure that there is always a connection between them.”

“In the same way, all our actions have been aimed at promoting face-to-face classes, not only to close the gap in academic lag, but also that this closeness helps us to work on the states of mind of the students and support with psychologists and social workers any need that the student and/or the family have,” he added.

Ramos Parés also assured that “great progress” has been made in improving student grades and skills by implementing the Extended Academic Reinforcement (RAE) for the second time in most schools. “This extension of school hours is yielding good results for our students and addresses part of the lag caused by emergencies such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and pandemics,” he said.

The secretary also mentioned that in addition to these efforts, “extending tenure for teachers, achieving a significant salary increase for teachers, and granting retention incentives for the Special Education area seek to strengthen school communities to provide better service to students and make sure teachers are in classrooms.”

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