School Emergency Planning - Expert Overview

In this article, the supervision and education experts at Robson Forensic outline steps/areas that school districts and schools can include in their Emergency Operations Plans (EOP) to ensure effective management and support of students, staff, and communities in times of health and safety crisis.

School Emergency Planning - Expert Overview

Schools and districts can face a myriad of threats and hazards that can disrupt the school system and education of students, creating an immediate crisis. These threats and hazards include but are not limited to:

  • Natural hazards - floods, tornadoes, or earthquakes
  • Technological hazards - power or water failure, explosions, or gas leaks
  • Biological hazards - infectious diseases, toxic chemicals, or food contamination
  • Incidental or Human Caused Threats - fire, active shooter, suicide, bomb threats, or riots1

Each of these hazards and threats have the potential to affect the health, safety, and well-being of students and staff. Although this article primarily focuses on biological hazards, the same planning principles and practices are applicable in any of the aforementioned hazards and threats.

EMERGENCY OPERATIONS PLANS

When emergency health or safety crisis situations occur, communication and coordination between schools and governmental public health officials and stakeholders is critical. Equally critical is the development and adherence to a school EOP. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that schools work in collaboration with local government officials and community partners to develop school EOPs.2

An EOP is just that, a well-defined, well thought out, comprehensive plan that enables a school/district to evaluate the potential ramifications of a health and safety crisis before, during, and after it affects a school/community. So what does that look like? The key is preparedness. Schools should be proactive by developing a plan. This involves training personnel and students, coordinating internal and external resources, developing viable communication systems, meeting students’ socio-emotional needs, and if school closure is necessary, planning for the students return to school.

The following components can support school EOP’s specific to biological hazards and can be applied to other health and safety crisis situations as well.

1. Education/Training provides school personnel, students and families the tools they need to act in an effective manner at a time of crisis. It can be done in advance of a crisis and then again at the time of crisis, if time permits. This may include:

  • Educating and training the entire school population on the health and safety protocols for infectious illnesses and hazards in general (prior to crisis) and specific to the disease or situation (at time of crisis).
  • Methods to report and record illnesses and hazards in a systematic, documented, and easily accessible manner that will alert schools of potential medical and hazard alerts or provide public entities with valuable health, geographic, and disaster information.
  • Educating and training the school personnel and student body with regard to sanitizing work spaces and safe hygiene practices to minimize the spread of disease and actions to take before, during, and after a threat or hazard crisis.
  • Educate and train families by providing published educational material on the specific disease or hazard and tips to prevent the spread of infectious diseases (i.e social distancing) or safety actions to take in response to technological hazards, natural hazards, or incidental threats.

2. Coordinating internal and external resources is critical to limiting the spread of disease in a school setting. This means creating a safety team during healthy times to include school personnel, Health Department, parents, local government, local law enforcement, first responders and medical and mental health personnel. For the development of a comprehensive plan that enhances the delivery of a smooth operation during a time of crisis, it’s crucial to first identify the roles of each team member and utilize their expertise efficiently and effectively. Key community members may be able to activate medical teams to provide testing or vaccinations, provide valuable scientific and up to date information, activate school closings, evacuate areas, navigate media, or ensure compliance. This use of resources includes testing and evaluating the systems created to ensure that they meet the intended goals.

3. Communication between school personnel, students, families, and community members is of utmost importance during a medical or emergency crisis. If communication lines break down, chaos and panic typically follow.

  • Schools – need to provide reliable information to the students, parents, and community. This can be done through the development of internal policies and practices outlining communication methods in advance of a health or safety crisis. School assemblies, classroom discussions; educational literature sent home, electronic messaging, webinar topics, and educational links are also viable communication methods schools can utilize in preparation of emergency situations.
  • Families – need to understand the importance of reporting illnesses to the school, keeping ill children home, practicing health and safety protocols, and gathering and disseminating factual and truthful information to their peers. They also need to know the importance of adherence to evacuation and emergency safety protocols and cooperation with first responders and designated emergency community groups.
  • Community members – It is critical that schools communicate with the public and the media in an effective and consistent manner. This is important to ensure the delivery of reliable facts, anticipated school actions, and desired community responses. Communicating on an ongoing and frequent basis promotes overall cooperation and a sense of control within the community. According to Strategic Communication Practices, practices used by police and as support to schools, when communicating important issues to the public, “messages should be evaluated in terms of two parts: content and position.3 In this case content applies to the type of biological hazard, the actions taken or planned by the school, and the recommended public actions. The position focuses on the emotional message and may involve empathy, unification, stressing the importance of safety and well-being, or even include apologies or condolences.
  • Staff/Faculty – A health or safety crisis can also present a potential change in working conditions that impacts both classified and certificated school employee contracts and safety. The inclusion of district human resources and union representatives in communications and emergency planning are key to ensure effective and consistent communication is provided to all employees.

4. Resources: In the event of a school shutdown, however temporary; the impact can have a rippling effect on students, their families, and their communities. As such, schools should consider and plan for not only the learning and academic needs of their students, but their economic and socio-emotional needs as well. Emergency plans that address the socio-economic needs of the student may include:

  • Coordination of school resources and staffing to address student meals and meal distribution as many families rely on schools to provide daily breakfast and lunch for their children.
  • A direct school contact/liaison that can coordinate and refer fiscally impacted families to community resources and services, including but not limited to, food banks and one-stop shop centers that provide multiple health and human service providers at one location, and can assist families with health, nutrition, shelter, employment, career services, and related needs.
  • A Mental Health (MH) continuity plan that provides 1) how the school will continue to support the mental health needs of at-risk students currently receiving school provided MH services, 2) a direct school contact/liaison that can coordinate and refer families to community MH resources and ensure a soft hand-off of services to community MH providers, 3) Memorandums of Understanding with community MH providers with clearly designated roles and responsibilities.4
  • Provisions to ensure students with disabilities will be provided with appropriate auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication (e.g., interpreters, captioning, and accessible information technology).5

5. Plan for Return: In continued coordination and communication with local public health officials, plan for the return of staff and students to school. The plan can include:

  1. Communication templates (written and electronic) that provide clear timeline for return;
  2. Compliance and implementation of any new health and safety protocols and procedures as mandated and directed by health and safety officials;
  3. Ongoing health and safety protocol/procedure training and support to staff, students, and parents; and
  4. Calendared dates for regular review of emergency plans that include update of school and community services, contacts, MOU providers, and ongoing health and safety protocols, procedures, and EOP training.

Planning for a hazard or threat through the development of an EOP can enable schools to address the health and safety of the students, personnel, families, and community in a systematic and comprehensive manner during emergency situations.

SUPERVISION & EDUCATION INVESTIGATIONS

This article was written with input from experts in the Supervision / Education practice group. Our experts specializing in educational administration are uniquely qualified to evaluate the planning and execution performed by school districts relative to incident and crisis management. They can also evaluate district and school policies and procedures related to safety in relation to injury that might occur as a result of a threat or hazard.

For more information, submit an inquiry or call us at 866.658.3569.

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