As Houston struggles to recover from Hurricane Harvey, research suggests school delays may put students at risk of long-term setbacks.
Harvey's widespread flooding continues to cause devastation in Texas, and has prevented approximately 230,000 students from going back to school this week.
Richard Carranza, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, told NPR that he wants to open schools as soon as possible. But academic research suggests the delays may have long-term consequences for students.
One effect is an extension of the "summer slide," a term sociologists use to refer to the knowledge loss kids experience over the summer as they forget some of what they learned in the prior school year. Kids from low-income families are more likely to suffer magnified effects from the summer slide, researchers have found. The longer schools stay closed, the more that gap between students could grow.
Absenteeism is also one of the most pernicious factors that limit student achievement. A study of Chicago Public Schools published in 2007 found that absentee rates in eighth grade were eight times more likely to predict which students failed their freshman year of high school than eighth-grade test scores.
Even though all Houston students will be delayed, schools will have to play catch-up or abandon certain material to make sure kids are on track for the following year. Students who are unaccustomed to an accelerated curriculum may risk falling behind.
What's worse, one documented reason kids don't come to school is that they lack clean clothes. At its peak, Harvey's floods knocked out power for approximately 300,000 people — and outages could linger in some areas for weeks. So families run the risk of not being able to send their kids to school with fresh shirts, pants, or underwear.
In recent years, Houston has made serious inroads to reduce chronic absenteeism. The school district has created a warning system when kids start accruing missed days, and has worked to help teachers build relationships with kids in order to support them when personal problems arise. In the 2014-2015 school year, fewer than 10% of the district's 230,000 students missed 18 or more days of school.
Additionally, kids whose local public schools are too damaged to open may have to switch to nearby schools. Some past research has indicated this can cause students intense feelings of stress, negative emotions, and in the most extreme cases, psychosis-like symptoms of hallucinations and delusions.
Superintendent Carranza has dispatched boats to each of Houston's 280 public schools to check for damage. But the physical state of those schools isn't the only factor that could delay their reopening, he told NPR, since many teachers have also fled the city and are struggling to recover from damage.
Carranza is making an effort to reduce the psychological and physical damage exacted by Harvey, however. He announced on Wednesday all students would receive three free meals per day for the entirety of the upcoming school year. He's soliciting further advice from school leaders in other states, particularly Louisiana, whose schools faced similar obstacles in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina.
"Number one, you just have to accept the fact that post the tragedy, that things will be in disarray and it may be in disarray for months," he told NPR.
Once schools do resume, teachers and staff may have to shoulder the added responsibility of making sure kids regain a sense of routine. Many of their families were likely displaced by Harvey; some may have been killed. More than just places to learn, the prevailing evidence shows kids will be better off in the long run if schools can also become places for them to heal.