Why Multi-Hazard Planning in K-12 Schools is More Important than Ever

The start of the 2020-2021 academic year has been like no other due to K-12 schools implementing COVID-19 mitigation strategies. However, while these strategies may be effective in reducing community transmission of the virus, they not only impact existing multi-hazard planning in K-12 schools, but may also increase the risk of more adverse events occurring.

In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a guide entitled “Get Your School Ready for Pandemic Flu”. The guide includes mitigation strategies to slow the spread of pandemics and recommends schools update existing emergency operations plans in order to account for the various scenarios they may encounter during a flu pandemic.

While providing valuable advice on pandemic mitigation strategies and emergency operations during a pandemic outbreak - much of which is being applied during the current COVID-19 pandemic - the guide does not address how the mitigation strategies impact existing multi-hazard planning in K-12 schools. For example, how schools should conduct state-mandated fire drills while maintaining social distancing.

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Some states have already issued guidance on how multi-hazard planning in K-12 schools should be adapted to maintain social distancing during fire drills. At a time when many schools are operating in shifts, in a hybrid environment, or remotely, this guidance works. It is also the case that other types of drills - for example, active assailant lockdown drills - are also manageable with reduced occupation.

In schools with full occupancy, multi-hazard planning is much more complicated. As an example, Ohio's State Fire Marshall recently issued guidance on how to conduct school fire and tornado drills in compliance with COVID-19 safety protocols. The guidance includes considerations such as:

  • Temporary plexiglas barriers erected to create dividing spaces in school buildings must not hinder smoke detectors, fire alarms, suppression systems, or evacuation pathways.
  • Rearranged seating or “one-way-traffic” systems must not hinder evacuation pathways or provide confusing instructions to evacuating students and staff.
  • Changes made to evacuation meeting points to maintain social distancing between student groups must ensure each meeting point is an appropriate distance from the risk of danger.
  • Hand sanitizer dispensers and student temperature checking points must also not impede evacuation pathways.

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Fires and tornados are not the only adverse events that can feature in multi-hazard planning in K-12 schools. The threats of other severe weather events, active assailants, and non-custodial abductions still exist; and schools should collaborate with local safety agencies in order to determine how best to maintain the ability to respond to these events while complying with COVID-19 safety protocols.

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Why Planning is More Important than Ever Now

There are several reasons why multi-hazard planning in K-12 schools is more important than ever now - the first being that, with so much mixed evidence about whether returning to school results in increased outbreaks of COVID-19 and MIS-C, school safety is likely to be dominated by monitoring the physical health of students and staff rather than monitoring other risks to school security.

The second reason for planning being more important than ever now is that there has been a substantial increase in mental health issues among the K-12 age group brought on by extended periods of social separation. These issues most commonly manifest as depression and a lack of concentration, but students who have not coped well with isolation can experience anger, suicidal ideation, and impulsivity.

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While the 2020-2021 academic year is still in its infancy, it is difficult to determine whether K-12 students have suffered the same increases in mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation as young adults interviewed for a CDC survey; but, with the current shortage of K-12 school nurses, there will be fewer trained eyes to watch out for signs of deteriorating mental health.

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What is so concerning about angry students with suicidal ideation acting impulsively is that these are the typical characteristics of a school shooter according to the Safe School Initiative's 2004 report. In the report, the authors note that “although only 17% were diagnosed with a mental disorder, 78% of school shooters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal ideations prior to their attack.”

While not all disaffected students will display negative emotions in the same way as the perpetrators of the Santa Fe, Parkland, or Sandy Hook school shootings, schools need to be prepared to respond to more - or different types of - adverse events due to COVID-19 mitigation strategies exacerbating students' existing mental health issues - which is why planning is more important than ever now.

Help to Prepare and Respond to Adverse Incidents in K-12 Schools

When reviewing multi-hazard planning for K-12 schools, one of the key considerations is communication - the communication of potential threats, the communication to quickly activate the appropriate emergency preparedness plan, and the communication with emergency services personnel and local safety agencies as an adverse event progresses.

One of the most effective ways to address this key consideration are School Safety Solutions - a suite of communication tools that can:

  • Enable early intervention through text-to-tip technology
  • Initiate the activation of emergency preparedness plans
  • Accelerate emergency response and improve the effectiveness of the response
  • Enhance situational awareness during an adverse event via multiple integrations
  • Provide accurate information to parents and other stakeholders from a trusted source

By preparing now for the risk of more adverse events - or different types of adverse events - your school will be better prepared for a more effective response if the worst happens.

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Tara Gibson
Tara Gibson

Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12, State & Local, Higher Ed, Corporate, and Healthcare, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!

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