State System takes action with new policy regarding natural disasters

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017 at 10:15 AM
State System takes action with new policy regarding natural disasters by Macala Leigey
Graphic: Shelby Kirk

As homes, cities and lives were shaken this year by the destructive natural force trifecta known as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, education took no backseat to the disruption these super storms inflicted.

 According to a National Geographic article, hurricanes Harvey and Irma inflicted the U.S. coast with raging winds exceeding 130 miles per hour (mph), while hurricane Maria quaked Puerto Rico with winds surpassing 155 mph.

These damaging winds, along with excessive flooding, left universities such as Texas State University, the University of Texas at Austin, Florida International University, the University of Puerto Rico and many other campuses with no choice but to temporarily close their doors and send students home, or in some cases, to other postsecondary institutions.

In September, the United States Department of Education issued a guidance on flexibility and waivers for state educational agencies, local educational agencies, the Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools, postsecondary institutions and other department grantees and program participants – including charter schools and nonpublic schools.

The guidance was a part of the department’s assessment to “relieve burdens for students, families and educational institutions in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as other states that may receive displaced students or be otherwise impacted,” stated a policy letter signed by Betsy DeVos, the acting United States Secretary of Education.

This relief effort within the nation’s education system became local when Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) opened its doors to students who had their education disrupted by recent natural disasters.

“As we move forward to redesign the state system, we want to provide our universities greater flexibility to respond to student needs, and the ability to be more nimble to respond more quickly to those needs,” Board of Governors Chairwoman Cynthia D. Shapira said in a state system news release.

With the recent need for natural disaster aid, PASSHE’s Board of Governors established a new “stand-alone policy” for its universities to “assist students whose education has been disrupted as the result of a natural disaster.”

In the past, the board of governors, on an individual basis, has given the state system universities permission to waive out-of-state tuition and fee rates to students whose academic institutions have had to close temporarily, due to a natural disaster. Previously, the board initiated this policy in 2005, when it aided students impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

“We (PASSHE) did this (provided aid to students) after Hurricane Katrina, when a number of universities in New Orleans were forced to close for several months, essentially meaning the students attending them were going to lose an entire semester or more,” State System Media Relations Manager Kenn Marshall said.

“We opened our doors to them so they could continue taking classes, especially those who might be from PA and really were forced to come home for awhile, while the city recovered.”

However, the new policy allows each state system university to take action on their own, without needing an approved vote from the board to provide aid for students each time a natural disaster occurs.

“This policy allows the universities to act as they deem appropriate when disasters occur, rather than requiring the board to grant approval each time,” Marshall said.

The new policy was approved in November, and will allow state system universities, such as Bloomsburg, Indiana, Cheyney, Clarion, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and Edinboro, to provide assistance for displaced students at the start of the 2017 winter term.

As of right now, Edinboro hasn’t had a need to implement the policy.

Macala Leigey is a managing editor (print) for The Spectator. She can be reached at

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