COVID-19 Silver Lining: Improved School Emergency Plans

Those in charge of campus safety should use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to evaluate existing emergency operations plans.

COVID-19 Silver Lining: Improved School Emergency Plans

Standard emergency planning is often boring. While full-scale exercises and fancy equipment grab our attention, most emergency operations planning consists of dry meetings that sometimes seem mundane or focused on pointless details. This is because we typically plan for what we expect — whether it be day-to-day situations or attention-grabbing events like active shooters attacks or severe weather. 

The current coronavirus response is a good example of when normal can be turned on its head. Who would have guessed that something as simple as a virus would be the crisis to shut down American schools — and schools all over the world — at the same time? We are lucky to have the burgeoning e-learning world available to make the continuation of classes possible, but many schools were not prepared for this.

What are some other events that can throw normalcy out the window and impact our planning in ways we could not have expected? And how can we learn from the current quarantine situation to prepare for future paradigm disruptions? 

A School Shooting

The first type of major tragedy that comes to many people’s minds when thinking about school safety is a mass shooting. This can lead to obvious disruption and cause the prolonged closure of a school. There can also be lasting impacts on the campus organization, including increased costs to recover, loss of trust from the community and increased insurance premiums.

The internal dynamics of the school organization are often affected as well. Changes of this type can be positive, such as the creation of new departments and expanded services, including anonymous tip lines or police presence. At other times, personnel are fired or even prosecuted for their involvement in an incident.

A Special Event with Unpredictable Characteristics

A political rally used to be a fairly standard event that could be planned for with basic police or security staffing. In the current political climate, however, any political event has the potential to turn chaotic. This can be a challenge as campuses must determine whether or not to invite or allow speakers that may be seen as controversial.

The process of security planning for the event itself is only part of the challenge and can be dealt with fairly easily. Planning for the impact (both short term and long term) of the event on the campus is now also a consideration that can challenge our current planning models and require updating. Social media presence is one of the primary components of this new paradigm.

Extremely Severe Weather

Like a school shooting, a severe weather event may be rapid and over quickly but can have a lasting impact on a school and a community as a whole. If the school is not impacted directly by severe weather, it may need to shift operations towards disaster recovery efforts.

For example, is your school prepared to set up the site as a shelter while also still providing regular school operations? If not, how can you offset the impacted operations, such as through distance learning or by using vacation days to make up for lost time? If the school building is impacted, the same need to provide education operations may be joined by a need for more intensive continuity of operations plans to continue business services such as human resources and payroll.

Wartime or Under the Threat of Terror

What would our system of education look like if impacted by a major act of war? The weeks surrounding 9/11 are one example of how schools could be impacted indirectly through even a single major attack. While operations may not be that dramatically different under these conditions, there are some adjustments that may be necessary, such as increased police presence or enhanced emergency drills.

An Act of Extreme Violence in a Small Community

Any extreme act of violence can impact a small community or a school organization. While the incident may have a direct impact, the long term psychological and interpersonal effects on the organization can happen in the short or long term. Loss of trust between organizations or individuals, loss of faith in leadership, personnel changes or outside mandates from the state or federal government can put a strain on any organization. This is a good reason to make sure that all processes are outlined in the emergency operations Plan instead of just relying on existing processes or relationships.

If your organization has a good model or leadership structure for crisis planning, be sure to outline those processes along with all the informal components that might be the result of a good working relationship among a good team. That same team may not always be in place, and maintaining this structure and process can help the plan live much longer.

Thinking of ways to maintain normalcy beyond just the minimum provision of services is paramount to sustaining operations in a prolonged or dramatic crisis. Using the current virus impact to evaluate our existing emergency operations plans is a start.

Thinking outside the box when using scenarios to plan or test plans can help not only improve preparedness for the unknowable but will also strengthen our plans for the everyday emergency.

Chris Dorn is a senior analyst for Safe Havens International, a non-profit campus safety organization.

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