After the Storm: Helping Kids CopePosted on by
Changing schools is hard for any kid. Imagine picking up without any notice and moving to a new school in a brand new place with a different climate, culture, and maybe even a different primary language. Harder still is the thought of moving because your home and community have been devastated by a major hurricane. The truth is, this is the reality for the tens of thousands of students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) who moved to the continental U.S. after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.
Recognizing a need
As a Massachusetts native, I subscribe to news alerts from the Boston area. One morning before heading to work in CDC’s Joint Information Center, I saw a news article about the influx of Puerto Rican children displaced by the hurricanes who were relocating to the cities of Springfield and Holyoke in western Massachusetts. Both cities have large Puerto Rican populations, and many residents were taking in relatives and friends from the devastated island. Schools in the territories would be closed for months after the storm, so many families were coming to the continental U.S. so their kids could keep going to school.
Children who were displaced as a result of the hurricanes faced the challenges of leaving behind their homes, communities, and schools, family and friends, and even their pets. Kids in middle and high school were old enough to understand the uncertainty facing their families. They had to stay strong to support their parents and siblings, while finding a routine at a new school and keeping up with their academics.
Understanding the issue
During my meeting with the Hurricane Emergency Response Communication Teams, I brought up the article I had read that morning. Dr. Melissa Mercado-Crespo, a behavioral health scientist at CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, took a special interest in the well-being of the families who had been displaced by the hurricanes. Dr. Mercado serves on the StopBullying.gov Editorial Board, and grew up in Puerto Rico. Most of her family and loved ones still live there, and when the storms hit, her husband was deployed to the island with the U.S. Army Reserves.
In collaboration with the CDC At-Risk Task Force, Dr. Mercado and I reached out to federal and local partners to find out how many hurricane-displaced students from Puerto Rico and USVI had enrolled in the middle of the semester. Through media and local sources, we learned that most of the students had enrolled at schools in Florida and New York, as well as cities in western Massachusetts. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, confirmed our findings. They estimated that after September 20, 2017 – the day Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico – 10,324 Puerto Rican students enrolled in Florida schools. The Puerto Rico Department of Education reported that nearly 25,000 students have left the island and are no longer enrolled in the Puerto Rico public school system.
My former colleagues in Boston put me in touch with José Claudio of the New North Citizens’ Council, a community organization that provides public and human services to residents in the Springfield area. He mentioned that many of the students were struggling to adapt to their new setting and that there were misunderstandings between the permanent students and their new peers. We wanted to provide teachers and youth organizations with tools and resources that could help make the transition easier for everyone.
To help address these challenges, we pulled together a list of resources to help teachers and youth organization leaders plan activities to prevent and reduce the emotional challenges new students may face and help them cope with the trauma following hurricanes. We published the list in a Spotlight issue of the CDC Emergency Partners Newsletter that was reviewed by CDC behavioral health experts and representatives from StopBullying.gov, SAMHSA, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). The newsletter went out to partners, and we received positive feedback from teachers, school counselors, and organizations that serve Hispanic populations in the U.S.
The messaging needs and target audiences change before, during, and after every emergency. We identified a new target audience during the 2017 Hurricane Response – children from Puerto Rico and USVI who left their schools and homes behind after the storms. Our hope is this is the first step in concrete efforts to help ensure they are no longer left behind.