COVID-19 has and will continue to alter the school operational landscape. The term “unprecedented” has been overused recently, but it certainly applies. The efforts to control the spread of this virus will impact all aspects of a school’s operation, from classroom instruction to after school activities and everything in between.
With that as the planning assumption, it becomes crucial to remember that the threats your school faced prior to COVID-19 will continue to pose a threat. The potential for severe weather, non-custodial abduction, fire, and active shooter to name just a few, still exist.
As you plan and work to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, those measures should not increase your school’s exposure to other threats. The current situation makes multi-hazard planning more important than ever.
School Emergency Response
School emergency protocols are in place to address immediate and imminent threats of harm to your students and staff. Your current response protocols are generally well known and most of your students and staff are familiar and comfortable with your processes. Schools have worked hard over the last few years to assure that this is the case. Any incident that would cause a school to use an emergency response protocol should be higher on the “potential harm” hierarchy than COVID-19 transmission.
Adapting current emergency procedures to incorporate physical distancing into your response platform is NOT recommended. Physical distancing should not be a concern in an emergency response. Altering your current procedures to include physical distancing would have an adverse effect on your school’s ability to respond in a critical incident.
However, exercises, drills and training will pose a different consideration where the need for physical distancing will be a requirement. The need for a school to maintain the capacity to respond in the event of an incident is essential. Drills as we have known them will need to change to address the physical distancing requirements of COVID-19 mitigation. These changes and adaptations should be done in consultation with your local first responders and approved by the appropriate authority.
Adapting Drills and Exercises
Idaho, like all other states under the International Fire Code (IFC), has a mandated monthly evacuation/fire drill. The Idaho State Fire Marshal, for this school year only, has developed an alternative adapted process to allow for physical distancing for this required monthly practice. The specific procedure is available here.
Prior to the use of this process in place of your standard fire drill, approval by your authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) will be necessary. If your state requires other mandated emergency drills, consultation, collaboration and authorization will be necessary prior to implementing any adaptations you are considering.
Lacking the advisability for large scale, full school drills, it will be critical that building administrators look for creative alternatives to their standard drill procedures. This year, it will be even more critical to review the school’s emergency procedures, including both purpose and process, with all staff prior to the first day of class. This focus should then continue and be ongoing throughout the school year with a “Safety Minute” at all staff meetings. Delivery of content can be varied with direct instruction, use of “what if” scenarios, and short tabletop exercises specific to the facility.
Teachers should hold age-appropriate discussions on their school’s emergency responses with their class on a regular basis. Other creative approaches at the classroom level such as role-play and walk-through may be effective as well, particularly with younger students. The use of video training is a viable alternative and there are several available on the internet. The Idaho Standard Command Responses for Schools (ISCRS) has training videos available on the program.
Crowd Control and Student Unrest
From an anti-mask mandate protest at a school board meeting to Black Lives Mater demonstrations at a high school, the potential for civil unrest during this school year exists. Polarizing and emotionally charged subjects and situations will be the norm rather than the exception for the foreseeable future.
With that as the backdrop, a review and update of your current processes and procedures to address community and student concerns in a proactive manner should be a priority. The need to engage your school community collaboratively in this process is critical and can help lower the tension that can cause unrest in the first place.
Despite your best efforts, you may have need to respond to a student/civil unrest incident. An intense review should be undertaken to assure effective practice in your current response procedure. Consider re-tooling the procedure, if needed, to ensure de-escalation plays a primary role in the initial response to any incident of potential unrest. Training on the expectations, including de-escalation, should be provided for all school staff who will play a role in the response. Whenever possible, collaborate and train with any other agency that may play a role in the response process.
Unified Communications Plans
Timely, robust and effective communications is majorly beneficial in highly dynamic situations. The current COVID-19 situation has proven particularly unpredictable. The more fluid the situation, the more critical the need for effective communications. To be effective, all messages must be both sent and received. Redundancy, a belt and suspenders approach, with the use of multiple messaging methods, will help to reach the greatest percentage of the intended audience.
Messaging or the content of the communications is as important as the method of sending the message. Consider pre-scripting messages for situations that you are likely to encounter in the coming weeks and months. This should include messages for all your operational planning. Without pressure, these messages can be developed and refined prior to need. With this done, the pre-scripted message will only need minor adjustments for the specifics of the situation and will speed the release and improve clarity of the message.
Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management
The pressure on students and staff will increase with the effects that COVID-19 will bring to the school environment. Knowing that Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management (BTAM) is the single most effective tool we have to address school violence prevention, it becomes imperative that you review your BTAM process with your staff. Pay particular attention to your intake procedures and the indicators that would “trigger” the referral of a student to the BTAM team.
Remote instruction and the blended educational model will reduce “eyes on” time school staff may have with any given student. This makes social media and anonymous tip reporting that much more important in identifying students that may be at risk and in need.
With your staff, review the availability of and referral process to your student supportive and mental health services. Remember that your staff is under pressure as well. Review with them any services that may be available through your employee assistance plan. And last, engage in a bit of self-care whenever possible — it’s going to be a long school year.
Crisis Teams and Plans
One of the sad realities of this pandemic is that schools will suffer the effect of the untimely death of a community member. Larger school districts and schools likely have procedures and expertise in place to address such an occurrence. For smaller school districts and schools, this may not be the case. All schools should review and/or develop a process and train staff on how to address a loss.
Often called a “crisis team,” this multi-disciplinary group should be prepared to go onsite at a school to offer support to the students, staff and administrators. Districts and schools lacking such a plan can find assistance and guidance on sudden death in the school community at the REMS TA website.
Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP)
Continuity of operations planning has been one of the biggest endeavors in the process of returning to school. In-person instruction, a hybrid or blended process of in-person and online delivery, and a fully online option are likely a part of your back-to-school plan. Your fall plan should include the potential for rolling school closures with starts and stops of various lengths at the classroom, school and district level.
What may not have been considered and well planned is the human element. From teaching and administration to basic business operations, potential loss of personnel to illness and/or quarantine may adversely affect a school’s continuing ability to operate. Cross-training and the need for a ”deep bench” in mission-critical positions and functions should be addressed prior to the need arising.
This year will impact school communities in ways that we do not yet fully understand. Preparation and flexibility will be key in successfully navigating the upcoming school year. Planning from a multi-hazard perspective has never been more important for schools.
Guy Bliesner is a school security analyst for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security.
The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.
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