When issues of survival are at hand, keeping children up on their studies might appear less of a priority. However, right alongside emergency shelter, nutrition, protection and other essentials, education provides stability, hope, normalcy and resources for the present and the future of any disaster-affected community. A return to the classroom also helps restore a sense of routine for children, even while their parents or caregivers are dealing with the aftermath of the destruction to home, work and community.

When children are unable to learn and grow intellectually because of natural disasters, displacement, complex humanitarian emergencies and other life-altering events, those communities cannot fully recover. In addition, since schools often serve as community hubs, families may miss entry points for health, nutrition and psychosocial care without them. School buildings that are not destroyed in a disaster may act as community shelters, delaying students’ access to schools or limiting availability of certain programs (i.e. cancellation of physical education if the gymnasium is serving as a shelter). Education nurtures development, encompassing growth in emotions, social skills, knowledge and mental capacity. Post-disaster, it also serves an essential role in helping children — and their families — cope. School lunch and after-care programs may become even more important than normal.

Within the U.S., post-disaster schooling is usually interrupted for a short-time and efforts are made to get children back in the classroom as soon as possible. The Brookings Institution reported that while return to school took up to three months for students in New Orleans after Katrina, “Disaster preparedness goes a long way in reducing the impact of natural crisis on education: Following the massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan, where schools were physically destroyed and the lives of teachers and children lost, classes commenced a mere week after the disaster in disaster-proof and multi-hazard resilient buildings.”

American schools have mandated the number of classroom days each student must complete; following a disaster schools either need to waive those requirements or make adjustments. After the 2017 hurricanes, Manatee County schools in Florida added 10 minutes to each school day for three months and decreased the length of its Thanksgiving break to accommodate for lost days.

Across the globe, according to the most recent UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) studies, 263 million children and youth are out of school. And when it comes to those displaced by conflict and complex humanitarian emergencies, estimates on how long they will be away from school range from six to eight years. The schooling simply cannot wait. Families may make choices about who returns to school after a disaster; often male children are allowed to continue their education while girls must work to support the family’s recovery.

Key Facts

  • Disasters hit some populations harder than others, but children and youth are typically among the most vulnerable. Natural disasters can separate families and related trauma can heavily disrupt childhood development. When it comes to complex humanitarian emergencies, according to UNHCR, almost half of the world’s forcibly displaced people are children. While displaced, if out of school, they miss key protection from abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation and other detriments.
  • Education is essential for both genders, but efforts to reach girls are especially important. UNESCO Institute for Statistics reports girls are more likely to be out of school than boys. Without schooling, girls are more likely to be illiterate and unprepared for future life challenges—including work opportunities and chances for a better existence.
  • Education is closely linked to many other components of humanitarian response, including water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), protection, camp management, shelter, and health. It was not one of the original nine thematic clusters established by the United Nations in 2005, but was added at a later date with UNICEF and Save the Children as agency leads. For a comprehensive response, educational efforts must be included in disaster risk reduction strategies, post-disaster rapid assessments and funding.
  • It is not enough that education is present for disaster-affected children. Emphasis also must be placed on the quality and relevancy of the educational offerings. These offerings can make all the difference in a community’s ability to recover today — and to overcome poverty, illness, inequality and lack of participation tomorrow.
  • Children from families with resources/connections may access school, leaving others behind. After a disaster, a family with wealth may try to send their child to a private school to ensure education is not delayed. Similarly, when families have relatives in an unaffected area, children may be sent to live with them. Schools in Florida took in thousands of students from Puerto Rico — 2,000 in Orlando alone.

How to Help

  • Advocate for greater inclusion of education in humanitarian response and back it up with funding. These efforts must also include education for those with physical and developmental disabilities.
  • Support efforts to involve children in disaster preparedness and planning. Participation in planning can give them an added sense of security, comfort and confidence, if and when a disaster occurs.
  • Pre-position educational supplies in disaster-prone areas. Include for example, textbooks, early childhood development kits, recreational activities and school-in-a-box kits.
  • Strengthen local partnerships. Shore up the capacity of those already working in education in disaster-prone areas; they will have the most accurate portrait of what is needed, should disaster strike.
  • Train educators and administrators in the assessment and management of risk factors, in addition to methods of offering psychosocial support. The school setting offers a rich opportunity for ongoing assessments.
  • Post-disaster, support the construction of temporary learning spaces. These should incorporate standards for appropriate lighting, size, etc., to disrupt the learning process as little as possible.
  • Invest in the design and building of educational structures that can better withstand the elements and provide shelter and protection in disaster-prone areas. Studies of the effects of previous disasters and implementation of best practices can help schools maintain their status as community hubs and safe places for all.
  • Teach disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies. People of all ages can lend a hand in mitigating the effects of disaster.
  • Support the development and implementation of early warning systems in disaster-prone areas. The more warning, the more time to prepare—and the better the long-term outcome.
  • Develop effective school-based response plans. Include disaster drills and safety assessments.

What Funders Are Doing

  1. In many cases, donors still do not specifically fund education in the context of disasters. What has increased, however, is the use of schools to deliver other risk reduction initiatives. Much work is still to be done in highlight the importance of education for the world’s disaster-affected communities both today and tomorrow.

    A few efforts in recent years include:

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