Tornadoes do an incredible amount of destruction every year across the U.S. and they surely don’t avoid anything in their path. This path often includes K-12 schools and district buildings. For this reason, it’s extremely important for schools to have emergency tornado preparedness plans in place in the event of a tornado, especially those in areas with a high tornado occurrence.
About 1,200 tornadoes hit the U.S. every year. Typically, peak season for tornadoes depends on where you are located. According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory, the peak “tornado season” for the Southern Plains is during May and early June. On the Gulf coast, it is earlier during the spring. In the northern plains and upper Midwest, tornado season is in June and July.” With this being said, tornadoes can occur at any time.
K-12 Schools: Understanding the Impact of a Tornado
An older guide from the Michigan Committee for Severe Weather Awareness included an example of why it’s very important to have a tornado preparedness and emergency plan.
During the busy school day a school principal learns of a severe thunderstorm watch that is due to hit the school district within an hour. At that time he cancels all outdoor activities, makes sure the school shelters are unlocked and easily accessible, and communicates this information to his staff and teachers. As the sky darkens and the storm looms, the principal starts moving students to safer places within the school. As hail begins to fall at high speeds (large hail can impact at 100mph), the skylights of the gymnasium shatter. Moving students quickly into the interior hallways, teachers and administrators announce to students to get down and cover their heads as glass breaks and the power goes out.
A couple of minutes pass and then the storm is over. A tornado struck the school destroying classrooms on the south side of the building, but the children and teachers were safe. A little shaken, but safe. This principal took the proper actions needed to save the lives of his students and staff.
Tornadoes can occur quickly and sometimes with no warning. For this reason decisions must be made fast and actions must be taken immediately. Tornado preparedness and planning is essential for K-12 schools.
6 Tornado Preparedness Tips for K-12 Schools
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “the average lead time for a tornado warning is 13 minutes, but some tornadoes can have little warning at all.” Many K-12 schools rely on weather radios and emergency alert systems to notify them of the threat of a tornado. It’s common to see communities in areas with high tornado occurrences have tornado sirens for when a tornado approaches.
- Create a Tornado Preparedness Plan
It’s important to keep in mind all natural disasters are different. We encourage K-12 schools to have emergency preparedness plans for any severe weather event or school safety threat. However, for tornado preparedness we recommend including what teachers, administrators, and students should do in the event of a tornado, where they should go, and how quickly they should move to a safe place.
- Find the Safest Location
Accredited Schools Online tells us that students should always be moved to the lowest floor avoiding areas with span roofs, such as cafeterias and gymnasiums. If possible, the safe space should have no windows. Students should know to crouch low and keep their heads down as this is the safest position they could be in.
- Practice Your Tornado Drills
It’s important to run tornado drills to make sure that every part of your tornado preparedness plan runs smoothly. Monitoring the traffic flow of students and staff, finding areas that are big enough to hold everyone safely, and making sure everybody moves quickly and efficiently are all aspects of your tornado preparedness plan that should be reviewed and adjusted. Watching the drills in progress will help administrators determine what needs to be tweaked and updated.
- Fine Tune Your Communications Plan
Communicating with staff, students, and parents is a necessity in the event of a tornado. Student safety is a K-12 school’s top priority, and a child’s safety is a parent’s top priority. Keeping parents in the loop on what is going on will help ease their minds knowing their child is in safe hands. Some K-12 schools use their school notification platform as an emergency alert system to communicate with parents and guardians when seconds count.
- Stay Informed
Be ahead of the curve. Make sure your staff is always aware of severe weather warnings by asking them to sign up for community alerts and downloading your official school safety app to ensure they are ready to act when a warning is issued. Again, having a reliable emergency alert system is key to keeping teachers and staff informed in the case of a tornado or other severe weather event.
- Plan for the Aftermath
If a tornado does hit your school you must be ready to jump into action. Make sure your staff and students are safe, and if there are injuries help those in need immediately. Move everybody away from damaged and unsafe areas, and wait for emergency responders to arrive.
Tornadoes are not a natural disaster to be taken lightly. Having a tornado preparedness plan and knowing how to communicate and inform staff and students is not a want, but a need for K-12 schools.
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