4 lessons from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to support pandemic recovery


4 lessons from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to support pandemic recovery

What Katrina's impact means for K-12 and higher education today


Following Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of New Orleans students were displaced. Most finished the academic year in other districts, but initially students were out of school entirely for a median of five weeks, with some absent for as long as two years. When New Orleans schools reopened, students were behind by an average of two grade levels.

The impact of the hurricane affected students years beyond the immediate aftermath; one study showed that students who were in 10th grade when they were evacuated for Hurricane Katrina attended college at a rate 4.2 percentage points lower than the pre-hurricane rate. While there are clear differences between the Katrina disaster and today’s pandemic, K-12 and higher education leaders can learn actionable lessons from the impact of the hurricane in order to support the students of today and tomorrow in pandemic recovery.

Lesson 1: Serious mental health concerns from disaster-related trauma will likely impact student success for years

Children affected by Katrina experienced high rates of depression, anxiety, behavioral problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These mental health challenges affected students’ engagement with school and possibly played a role in longer-term effects like lower college-going rates. One study conducted by Harvard researchers found that in the years after Katrina, serious student mental health concerns negatively impacted school performance and every day life at rates three times higher than pre-disaster rates.

Trauma has already been on the rise for K-12 students for years. Today’s pandemic has put students at even higher risk; students have been isolated over a long period of time, some are experiencing anxiety and grief, and financial challenges are threatening basic needs security.


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What this means for K-12 today

Student trauma in K-12 was already widespread before the pandemic. Now, heightened levels of stress and trauma increase the imperative for schools and districts to teach and lead with trauma-informed and culturally-relevant practices.

What this means for higher ed today

Many institutions of higher education are reporting greater mental health challenges among students. Institutions should expand mental health and wellness support both inside and outside of the classroom.

Lesson 2: Left alone, equity gaps exposed and worsened by the pandemic will persist

Flooding in New Orleans disproportionately displaced low-income families during Hurricane Katrina compared to higher-income families. About a quarter of parents of displaced children reported declines in educational performance two years after Katrina. Additionally, research suggests that low-income and racially minoritized students disproportionately experienced learning loss. Even years after the storm, equity gaps persist in high school graduation rates between Black and white students and low-income and higher-income students in New Orleans.

What this means for K-12 and higher ed today

Today, evidence suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated existing equity gaps. Black and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to be learning via remote instruction. Test scores are disproportionately down in areas with high rates of poverty. And, it’s predicted that no matter the mode of instructional delivery in 2021, students of color are expected to experience more learning loss than white students. It is imperative that K-12 and higher ed adopt practices that promote equity and address the many challenges students are facing as a result of the pandemic.

Lesson 3: Co-requisite developmental education methods can help students bounce back

Following the hurricane, New Orleans schools delivered traditional remedial education to help address learning losses. Younger students responded well and progressed rapidly. However, researchers found that high school students were bored with below-grade-level content and did not perform well.

Instead, educators in New Orleans moved these students to typical grade-level classes and taught with the “spiraling” method, meaning they would cover prerequisite content that students may have missed before moving on to new content. This technique reflects a growing trend in education, particularly at community colleges, of focusing on co-requisite education in lieu of traditional remedial coursework.

What is “traditional remedial education?”

Following Hurricane Katrina, remedial education involved placing students in below-grade-level courses in order to catch up and learn the skills they would eventually need for grade-level content.

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What this means for K-12 today

K-12 educators face the daunting task of catching students up to account for learning loss. Teachers should focus on acceleration and prioritization. Acceleration involves teaching grade-level content and cycling back to earlier content only if students appear to be behind in that area and if the information is crucial for new content. Prioritization involves focusing time on high-impact, grade-level lessons.

What this means for higher ed today

Following the pandemic, higher ed may welcome incoming students with lower levels of college readiness. Higher ed must develop and enhance co-requisite remediation offerings in order to help students succeed.

Lesson 4: Learning loss will affect younger and older students differently

Following the hurricane, New Orleans students of all ages experienced learning loss. However, students who were adolescents at the time of the disaster showed more negative long-term outcomes than K-5 students. One analysis suggests that following Katrina, four months’ learning loss required two years of normal seat time to fully recover academic pacing. Older students had less time to get back on track academically, and less time to prepare for college.

What this means for K-12 today

While educators should take steps to address learning loss at all levels, it is especially crucial to attend to the needs of adolescent students in middle and high school who have less seat time remaining in K-12 and for whom college access should be a key priority.

What this means for higher ed today

Incoming students over the next few years will be the most likely to enter your institution with residual learning loss from their disrupted K-12 experience. Institutions should proactively identify struggling students and connect them with the resources and support they need.

Learn more about the future of education in a post-COVID world

Even though schools are now or will soon be back to learning in-person, the experience of the past year will change education forever. Institutions should build on the lessons and successes they’ve learned from the pandemic to ensure students are positioned for future success.

Stakeholder Education

For K-12 leaders

Watch our on-demand webinar, K-12’s Path Forward: The Seven Wonders of a Post-Vaccine World.

Stakeholder Education

For higher ed leaders

Register for our upcoming event, State of the Union: Imperatives for the Post-Vaccination Institution for Provosts.

Understand the students of the pandemic

Use our interactive journeys to get a first-hand look at the decisions, obstacles, and opportunities facing students navigating to and through higher ed during a global pandemic.

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