By Margaret Benson Nemitz
The timing of Dr. Cassandra Davis’s presentation in our Natural Hazards Resilience Speaker Series on February 20 could not have been better planned. Dr. Davis, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Policy at UNC, studies how storms and natural disasters impact school communities. We were already planning for a virtual class session on Feb. 20, as both Dr. Davis and Dr. Shaleen Miller, our professor, were attending a conference in Florida. Little could we have known that a (miniature) snowstorm would hit Chapel Hill that day. Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools had closed in anticipation of the afternoon storm, and would remain closed the following day as well. At the time of our call, UNC was in Condition 1, so technically speaking, our class should have been canceled as well. Instead, we all called into the Zoom meeting, curled up and stared out the window as the snow fell and we listened to the important work that Dr. Davis is doing.
Dr. Davis brought up some critical questions related to how natural hazards impact education systems, many of which she is tackling through preliminary qualitative research and additional research plans. To what extent are school communities really prepared to weather a storm? Although schools are used as shelters during disasters, what happens to the schooling during and after the buildings use as a shelter? How does student attendance, behavior and testing play out following a storm? What are storm impacts on educators?
She proceeded to discuss the specific disruptions that schools experience after a hurricane, detailing findings from her research. As she detailed the disruptions to transportation, school operations and student and faculty lives, I was reflecting on the level of disruption that was resulting from just two snow days, and in doing so, was able to better imagine the scale of natural hazard disruption on schools.
My partner is a high school math teacher, and many of our friends are educators as well. As such, I give a lot of thought to school closings and the many ways in which storms impact education. Earlier that same day, my partner and I were chatting with a friend with two school-aged children, discussing the arguably premature school closing on Thursday. We debated whether the school could have instead scheduled a delayed opening, and thought through what factors go into school closing decisions, with transportation being high on that list, along with safety and liability. We also discussed how disruptive the unexpected two-day vacation was.
While snow days are exciting, these unexpected breaks require shifting lesson plans, and also mean that teachers and students planned days off will likely disappear, making it difficult to rely on the time off that students and teachers do receive. As I am writing this blog post nearly a week after the snowstorm, my partner just received an email update that scheduled teacher workdays will be taken away to replace the missed snow days, and teachers will instead have two teacher work days once the school year is over.
Having just had this conversation earlier in the day, I was particularly struck by Dr. Davis’s discussion on both transportation and personal disruption, and particularly appreciated the emphasis she placed on educator burden that results from natural hazards, as I have never heard this addressed so explicitly as in Dr. Davis’s presentation. Her research recommendations felt incredibly relevant and necessary to uplift to ensure that school districts, educators and students can best prepare, respond, and recover to natural hazards in a way that protects social-emotional health of students and educators. I look forward to seeing where Dr. Davis’s research takes her as she pursues exciting new directions and explores how to build school resiliency, and I thank her deeply for investing in this space.
Margaret Benson Nemitz is a second year Master in Public Health student in the Health Behavior department at UNC-Chapel Hill. She focuses on how local public health can more meaningfully communicate to and engage with communities in public health-related decision making to improve health equity.