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Weathering the Storms

Advice for school leaders on preparing for — and coping amid — the next weather emergency or man-made disaster
Weathering the Storms

In the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Florence, or sudden crises like the gas explosions that hit Massachusetts last week, school and district leaders find themselves in a tempest of tough calls about everything from when to close and reopen schools, to how to help students and staff cope, to how to integrate everyone into new classrooms far away from damaged homes.

As hurricane season continues — and with winter on the horizon, and any number of other safety threats on the agenda — we’ve collected some advice on how to navigate operational and safety decisions from the macro to micro, in a way that keeps kids at the center.

When to Close, When to Stay Open

Andrés Alonso, the former superintendent of the Baltimore City Public Schools, gave this advice to district leaders navigating tough choices on when school should be closed in response to threats. We summarize his advice here:

  • Put safety first. "The safety of children always comes first. But because there are no guarantees, you are also weighing families and home care, you’re weighing children who are eligible for free and reduced meals and their access to food, you’re weighing issues with teachers and their travel and their ability to get to school and deal with their own family responsibilities in an emergency. So there are going to be dilemmas. Normally, you have a bias toward keeping schools open and keeping kids in schools. That should be the default. Kids generally are safest at school. On the other hand, there are going to be some circumstances where that’s not true.”
  • Don’t worry about people pleasing. “You will never make everyone happy: In every year, in every school system, you’re going to have to make a set of calls around closing or opening schools where you could be right or you could be wrong. Most of the time you’re going to have 50 percent of the people happy and the other 50 percent of the people unhappy. Whether it’s snow, water main breaks, Halloween pranks — no matter what you do, you’re going to have a sector of the community that thinks that you acted in the wrong way, because it impacted their lives in a negative sense.”
  • Communicate. “You should always be in communication with your community about your decisions. You should be in constant conversation about the whys and the hows. It shouldn’t just be about these fraught situations when you have national attention focused on one decision. It should a part of everything that you do. If you’ve established that constant, two-way communication as a routine element of what you do, then you build trust, and trust is critical in these situations.”

Assessing Your Emergency Operations Plan

Does your school have an effective emergency operation plan (EOP)? According to this downloadable toolkit from Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools, a high-quality EOP encompasses five principles: prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery. From a school-based perspective, the toolkit spells out practical strategies to guide emergency planning: 

  • Plans must be supported by leadership.
  • Plans must use assessments customized to each building and surrounding community.
  • Plans must consider all threats and hazards — from cybersecurity attacks to flu outbreaks — not just typical ones. Plans must determine the level of risk and vulnerability to particular schools from a broad spectrum of challenges. 
  • Planning and preparing must be inclusive from the start, covering the needs of every member of the school community — students or adults with disabilities, students who rely on specific transportation modes, students with limited English proficiency, etc.
  • Plans must consider and be responsive to all possible settings and times, including non-instructional times.
  • Planning must be collaborative.

When School Is Back in Session

The difficult decisions don’t stop once students return to the classroom. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offer this advice for educators about dealing with the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster:

  • Account for your students and assess their needs. If possible, track the status of all the students in your classroom or school, advises NASP. Did their houses get damaged? Are they living with another relatives, or in a shelter? Think about how to address needs through classroom discussions, and by referring students to counseling. Idenitfy ways for students to keep in touch with classmates who have been displaced.
  • Account for the grown-ups, too. School staff, including teachers, will need time to process the events and what it means for them, and serving as crisis caregivers is an extra emotional drain. Allow time for the adults in the school to discuss their own experiences, share their own stories, and find mental health support, says the NASP guide.
  • Establish routine. Re-establishing routine is key to helping kids recover from majorly distruptive events, according to FEMA’s Safer, Smarter, Stronger, a guide for schools on managing natural disasters. While schools might have a hard time getting back to normal — especially if their physical space was damaged or is being used as a shelter — many children are actually craving routine and order after the chaos of a hurricane. Still, be flexible about enforcing some rules — schools in the wake of Katrina, for example, let dress codes fall to the wayside, understanding that many children had lost most of their clothing in the storm.
  • Prepare for the next one. Schools can be key resources after a storm and a source of strength for the entire community — if they’ve prepared. Schools that have taken steps to reduce their risks and have adequately prepared for emergencies can respond effectively, recovery quickly, and help support the entire community to recover from a disaster.

“Your kids or your students will watch how you respond to scary events, and they take cues from you." 

Helping Children at School and at Home

Given the scope of destruction predicted to come in the wake of Hurricane Florence, it’s likely that children will have serious concerns about safety and the future — and adults might have no easy answers. Richard Weissbourd, the director of the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, offered advice on how to talk to children and students about scary or traumatic events. We summarize his advice here:

  • Listen to children to begin to understand how they understand the trauma. “What you’re scared about, as an adult, may not be what they’re scared about … and this is likely to be different for children at different developmental ages.” In a classroom setting, Weissbourd says having a school therapist present can also prove helpful.
  • Protect children from being bombarded with visual images of trauma, like video footage of roofs flying off on TV. “You don’t want your child to get re-triggered,” says Weissbourd. You might want to turn off the TV, and not just for the sake of children. Adults should also “protect themselves from being re-traumatized.”
  • Develop a safety plan with your child, or for your classroom.
  • Use self-soothing techniques to help kids get through rough moments. “If kids are feeling really stressed and worked up, deep breathing, getting exercise, listening to music and other strategies for calming down and managing anxiety can really help,” Weissbourd says.
  • Model your own resiliency will help your students or children. “Your kids or your students will watch how you respond to scary events, and they take cues from you,” says Weissbourd, “So often events that are scary for kids are scary for adults, too. As parents and educators, we also have to take care of ourselves.”
  • Talk to kids on their terms. In times of turmoil, a lot of information might go over kids’ heads – and that’s ok. Talk to them in ways they can understand, and don’t feel the need to provide too much detail to younger children. “Spend some time thinking — and talk to other adults you trust — about how to talk to your child in a way that will help them understand and make sense of events that may otherwise feel unpredictable and overwhelming," Weissbourd advises. 

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