5 Strategies to Help Ensure School Safety When Campuses Reopen This Fall
With the processes surrounding campus reopenings so uncertain, these five steps will help your school district evaluate and test your safety plans, as well as prepare your staff to make quick adjustments, if needed.
School officials faced unprecedented challenges with the shuttering of campuses this past March due to the coronavirus. Throughout the spring and summer, K-12 district leaders and their community partner agencies have been diligently and meticulously planning for when and how to reopen schools for the 2020/2021 academic year. Few if any public school systems have any locally budgeted funds to address the multitude of expensive measures that have been implemented over the past several months, and many do not have additional local funds for those measures that will need to be taken in the coming year. In addition, school leaders face uncertainty about funding levels due to the economic downturn, which could reduce tax revenues.
In addition to these challenges, many K-12 officials have concerns about how adjustments to address the risk of COVID-19 may impact school safety, security and emergency preparedness. To further complicate an already complex situation, the massive number of protests relating to the use of excessive force by police officers when arresting African Americans include significant pressure in some communities to remove law enforcement personnel from assignments at K-12 campuses.
While the events of this summer and fall may create new challenges and opportunities requiring additional adaptations, there are steps school officials can take now to evaluate and test planned efforts before re-opening. These steps can also help them better prepare to make rapid adjustments should they be required after students come back to in-person classes.
Many school and state department of education officials we have been working with say the following suggestions were helpful to them:
- Create and approve a board policy that allows the superintendent and their designees to deviate from established board policies to address COVID 19 health risks. We suggest districts immediately write and begin the approval process for this type of policy. Doing so can prevent a range of potential problems, such as attorneys arguing that a safety policy was not adhered to during safety-related litigation. Because many school districts require two or three months or more to pass a new policy, it could be prudent to begin this process now.
- Review all school safety policies that potentially conflict with COVID 19 prevention measures. We recommend having a person or a team review all security policies and procedures to see if COVID-19 prevention measures will be likely to create challenges. While some challenges may be obvious, other potential conflicts might not surface until school reopens. Identifying challenges now could provide districts with more time to develop ways to address them.
- Review emergency and drill procedures for potential conflicts with COVID 19 prevention measures. We also suggest having a person or a team review all emergency procedures and drill processes now to see if COVID 19 preparedness measures will be likely to create challenges when schools re-open. Like in No. 2 above, some conflicts may be obvious but others might not surface until campus students return. Identifying these now could provide more time to work with state and local regulatory agencies and public safety partners to develop ways to address conflicts. For example, social distancing guidelines will likely conflict with emergency evacuation, reverse evacuation, severe weather sheltering and emergency lockdown guidelines. However, spreading students out during drills can result in accidents if age and developmentally appropriate awareness measures are not utilized. In some cases, pushing drill schedules to later in the school year combined with a review of drill procedures early in the school year may be possible and prudent.
- Conduct pre-mortem exercises. Many school officials are concerned that their re-opening plans may still contain undetected flaws that could surface in the fall. One powerful and inexpensive way to help spot opportunities for improvement in plans and processes is known as a pre-mortem exercise. This exercise is somewhat similar to the familiar post-mortem critique but is done before an incident occurs to spot opportunities for improvement. As Dr. Michael Roberto suggests, having a team work through a hypothetical scenario where participants must assume that a major failure has occurred is an excellent and inexpensive way to test plans, procedures and systems for incorrect assumptions and gaps. Dr. Roberto points out that internal personnel can often spot potential problems that even outside experts may miss. He maintains this is because insiders know the many nuances, such as personalities, silos, barriers to collaboration, political dynamics, resource limitations and a variety of other factors that can impact how well an organization can implement critical plans and processes.
- Develop improved safety communications capacity. An increasingly important capability even before the pandemic, the ability of districts to rapidly communicate safety-relevant information with staff, students, parents and the general public will be critical if events require a quick change in course or just as importantly, if the need for a change in approach is widely perceived but is not correct. This has become especially critical due to the dramatic influence that social media has in driving a highly competitive 24/7/365 media environment.
The Internet, social media and other factors have created increasing pressure on media organizations to sacrifice accuracy, detail and context for speed of reporting as well as emotive approaches, which resonate with a media organization’s particular base of consumers. Extreme viewpoints driven by inaccurate information and increased polarization have become significant problems in free societies like the United States.
For many of us who have been regularly interviewed on high-profile topics by national and international media organizations for longer than social media has been in play, the increase in severe distortions and inaccuracies in reporting is quite noticeable. In fact, I feel this is one of the most significant challenges in school safety today. The focus of both social media and more traditional media now frequently and pervasively takes on a life of its own. This often drowns out some of the most important and accurate information. As has increasingly been the case with active assailant events at K-12 schools, this effect continues to be a major concern with information about the pandemic on social media and the media coverage it now drives.
Most K-12 school systems, their public health and other community partner agencies have become increasingly more effective in addressing the complex challenges of COVID 19. Unfortunately, the ability of school and public health officials to effectively communicate when disinformation is prevalent and triggers understandable emotional responses among many people has become almost as important as the decisions made and measures taken to address the pandemic itself.
Make These Changes Now
Building robust capabilities and practicing their use with functional exercises now could be an incredibly valuable asset to school districts as re-opening gets closer. This capacity can also prove to be invaluable for a wide array of other controversial, frightening and serious school safety topics over time.
While there are many other important aspects that need attention before schools re-open, these core topics are especially relevant for campus safety professionals and other school leaders.