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April 2020

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What does the literature/research suggest about the effect of unexpected school closures, such as natural disasters, on student achievement?


Thank you for the question you submitted to our REL Reference Desk regarding what literature/research suggest about the effect of unexpected school closures, such as natural disasters, on student achievement. We have prepared the following memo with research references to help answer your question. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. The references are selected from the most commonly used research resources and may not be comprehensive. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Other relevant studies may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

  1. Di Pietro, G. (2018). The academic impact of natural disasters: Evidence from L’Aqulia earthquake. Education Economics, 26(1), 62-77.
    Retrieved from:
    Full text available at natural-disasters-evidence-from-l-aquila-earthquake
    From the abstract: “This paper uses a standard difference-in-differences approach to examine the effect of the L'Aquila earthquake on the academic performance of the students of the local university. The empirical results indicate that this natural disaster reduced students' probability of graduating on-time and slightly increased students' probability of dropping out. While post-disaster measures (e.g. fast re-establishment of education activities in temporary locations) are likely to have mitigated the effects of this event, disruptions in the learning environment and the mental trauma suffered by students in the aftermath of the earthquake may have worsened their academic performance.”
  2. Fletcher, J. & Nicholas, K. (2016). What can school principals do to support students and their learning during and after natural disasters? Educational Review, 68(3), 358-374.
    Retrieved from:
    Request full text available at
    From the abstract: “Natural disasters can happen at any time. The impact they have on students, their families and the teachers relies on strategic and calm leadership by school principals. As schools are situated within communities, principals not only have a role leading within the school, they are also viewed as community leaders. This paper focuses on six New Zealand primary school principals and their experiences and responses during and after the Christchurch earthquakes. The principals were interviewed using a semi- structured interview schedule. The qualitative data and their analysis found that the school leadership teams adapted the types of digital technologies used to communicate with the school community to fit with rapidly changing contexts. The principals displayed qualities of moral courage and actively worked towards improving learning conditions for students. They supported the students and teachers within their schools who were showing symptoms of post-traumatic after effects. Also, the principals provided leadership in a variety of ways in the wider community.”
  3. Gibbs, L., Nursey, J., Cook, J., Ireton, G., Alkemade, N., Roberts, M., Gallagher, H. C., Bryant, R., Block, K., Molyneaux, R., & Forbes, D. (2019). Delayed disaster impacts on academic performance of primary school children. Child Development, 90(4), 1402-1412.
    Retrieved from:
    Full text available at
    From the abstract: “Social disruption caused by natural disasters often interrupts educational opportunities for children. However, little is known about children's learning in the following years. This study examined change in academic scores for children variably exposed to a major bushfire in Australia. Comparisons were made between children attending high, medium, and low disaster-affected primary schools 2-4 years after the disaster (n = 24,642; 9-12 years). The results showed that in reading and numeracy expected gains from Year 3 to Year 5 scores were reduced in schools with higher levels of bushfire impact. The findings highlight the extended period of academic impact and identify important opportunities for intervention in the education system to enable children to achieve their academic potential.”
  4. Tull, S., Dabner, N., & Ayebi-Arthur, K. (2017). Social media and e-learning in response to seismic events: Resilient practices. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 21(1), 63-76.
    Retrieved from:
    From the abstract: “The motivation to adopt innovative communication and e-learning practices in education settings can be stimulated by events such as natural disasters. Education institutions in the Pacific Rim cannot avoid the likelihood of natural disasters that could close one or more buildings on a campus and affect their ability to continue current educational practices. For the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the impetus to innovate was a series of seismic events in 2010 and 2011. This paper presents findings from studies that identified resilient practices in this organisation, which was a "late adopter" of e-learning. The findings indicate that the combined use of social media and e-learning to support teaching, learning, communication, and related organisational practices fosters resilience for students, staff, and organisations in times of crises. The recommendations presented are relevant for all educational organisations that could be affected by similar events.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

  • The International E-Learning Association:
    From the website: “The International E-Learning Association (IELA) is dedicated to advancing the knowledge and practice of e-learning in the classroom and the workplace. With members hailing from every continent—and from the realms of business, industry, government, and academia—the IELA is a vibrant and diverse community of e-learning professionals, researchers, and students.”
  • U.S. Department of Education:
    From the website: “Health officials are currently taking steps to prevent the introduction and spread of COVID-19 ("Coronavirus") into communities across the United States. offers the most up to date information about this rapidly evolving situation. Through collaboration and coordination with State and local health departments, State and local educational agencies, other education officials, and elected officials, schools can disseminate critical information about the disease and its potential transmission to students, families, staff, and community.”


Search Strings. Unexpected closures student achievement OR traumatic events student achievement OR traumatic school closing student achievement OR natural disasters student achievement OR natural disasters student outcomes OR student outcomes post-disasters OR natural disasters school closings OR natural disasters school closings student outcomes OR natural disasters school student achievement OR natural disasters students OR natural disaster student impacts

Searched Databases and Resources.

  • ERIC
  • Academic Databases (e.g., EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, ProQuest, Google Scholar)
  • Commercial search engines (e.g., Google)
  • Institute of Education Sciences Resources

Reference Search and Selection Criteria. The following factors are considered when selecting references:

  • Date of Publication: Priority is given to references published in the past 10 years.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: ERIC, other academic databases, Institute of Education Sciences Resources, and other resources including general internet searches
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study types, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, as well as to correlational designs, descriptive analyses, mixed methods and literature reviews. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality.

REL Mid-Atlantic serves the education needs of Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

This Ask A REL was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0006 by Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic administered by Mathematica Policy Research. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.