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.”