When Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Houston in 2017, the category 4 storm destroyed thousands of houses and left much of the city underwater. At the time, officials at Western Governors University, an online college that today enrolls more than 120,000 students nationwide, knew scores of them were experiencing the devastation firsthand.

Even before Harvey, Western Governors officials kept an ear to the ground for events that could hinder students' ability to take assessments, specifically. The university uses those tests to help students pace through its competency-based programs. But the cataclysmic event spurred officials to expand those efforts, now called the Environmental Barriers Program, to provide individualized support to learners whose education is disrupted by natural disasters, not just those taking assessments.

"That's when it really took off," said Debbie Fowler, senior vice president of student success at Western Governors.

Today, the program's team members survey the news for natural disasters, determine how many of Western Governors' students could be impacted by an event, and notify their assigned mentors so they can offer support. That can include linking the affected students to resources or allowing extra time on assignments.

The Environmental Barriers Program assists thousands of Western Governors students each year. The year after Harvey, the team monitored 32 events, identified more than 11,000 students who might be impacted and followed up with about half to help them carry on with their studies, according to a university webinar held last summer.

But the pandemic presented a new challenge. Early last March, nearly 300 students living in Washington state, one of the areas first hit by the virus, needed assistance due to the pandemic.  Two weeks later, that number surged to around 7,500 students nationwide.

Officials knew they needed to expand the program. They began holding daily meetings, where the Environmental Barriers team updated university leadership about where the coronavirus was impacting students the most and what kind of support they needed.

Read the full article about helping universities with recovery for natural disasters by Natalie Schwartz at Higher Education Dive.