Before, During, and After School Emergencies
School districts and schools can build and maintain relationships with community organizations, public health officials, and emergency management organizations to make coordination easier during an emergency. This can also include building interoperable data systems to share information about infectious disease outcomes and impacts, as well as school learning modality status. Schools can consider adding members to their school health advisory committees with expertise in certain subject areas, such as infection control or emergency response.
Examples of organizations and their role in school emergency preparedness include the following:
- Local emergency management agency personnel: Supports resource management, emergency operations plan (EOP) development, and exercises (as requested by the school or local education agency [LEA]).
- Local law enforcement, fire department, and other emergency services: Enforces state laws; conducts building fire and safety inspections; and partners with schools in planning, exercises, and response for emergencies occurring at schools.
- Local health department: Participates in EOP development and exercises (as requested by the LEA), supports case investigation and contact tracing of a local health problem or hazard, supports or requires case reporting from schools, and conducts food inspections.
- Local health systems and healthcare providers: Provide medical assistance and expertise before, during, and after an emergency; support EOP development for certain areas (e.g., infectious disease annex); and participate in exercises as needed.
- State/territorial education agency: Provides oversight, guidance, funding, and professional development to LEAs on preparedness policies and practices.
- State/territorial health department: Provides guidance and funding to local health departments to support school preparedness activities; supports case investigation and contract tracing; and serves as liaison between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), local health departments, and LEAs for technical assistance as needed.
Students from federally recognized tribal nations receive educational services through a variety of mechanisms, including tribe or Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) managed boarding schools or day schools. They also may attend public schools, who are encouraged to build and maintain partnerships with the local tribe(s).
- Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA): Funds, maintains, repairs, and replaces schools educating American Indian and Alaska Native students.
- Bureau of Indian Education (BIE): Administers and oversees BIA-funded schools; develops preparedness trainings and guidance; and provides support and technical assistance when requested.
- Tribally run or BIE-operated schools: Develop, train, practice, and implement EOPs based on any requirements from the tribe.
- Indian Health Service (IHS): Provides a comprehensive health service delivery system for federally recognized American Indians and Alaska Natives.
- Local and tribal health department (including tribal health not funded by IHS): Supports EOP development and exercises (as requested by the school or BIE); supports case investigation and contact tracing of a local health problem or hazard; and supports or requires case reporting from schools.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Provides information on a variety of health problems and hazards; communication resources on emergency preparedness; technical assistance related to health problems or hazards; and training to public health professionals, such as the Working with Schools 101 training. They also support case investigation, contact tracing, and outbreak investigations of a health problem or hazard (when a state requests assistance).
- Department of Education: Provides guidance, resources, tools, training, and technical assistance through the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center (REMS TA Center) and a list of federal school safety grants. They also provide funding through the Project School Emergency Response to Violence (Project SERV) for LEAs and institutions of higher education that have a disrupted learning environment due to a significant, traumatic event.
- Department of Homeland Security: Provides information on Ready.gov about emergency preparedness. Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), provides preparedness resources, support during a declared emergency (when requested by a state or tribal government), and interactive tools to help government agencies and other organizations understand the National Preparedness System.
- Environmental Protection Agency: Provides resources about preparing for natural disasters, as well as information about specific chemicals.
Schools can work with their community to understand local circumstances that affect their staff members, students, and families. This can include individual or community-wide needs, as described below. It can also include school-specific needs such as those operating as boarding schools or serving unique populations, such as students in juvenile detention centers, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, or group homes. Understanding these needs can help schools keep their staff members and students safe. Consideration of these community-wide and individual circumstances when communicating and when developing, testing, and putting into place an EOP is encouraged.
Examples of circumstances to consider include the following:
- Race, ethnicity, and culture: Schools can ensure understanding of relevant cultural practices and beliefs that may affect how staff members, students, and families may react before, during, or after an emergency.
- Language and literacy: Schools can provide resources in appropriate formats and languages before, during, and after an emergency so that all staff members, students, and families have access to information.
- Location: Urban, suburban, and rural locations each have unique circumstances affecting transportation, access to healthcare, and other services. Schools could work with partners to identify how their location may present challenges and opportunities.
- School size: Schools can serve anywhere from a few to thousands of students. This can impact procedures, such as those for evacuating or sheltering in place.
- Disabilities: Staff members and students with any type of disability (such as cognitive, mobility, vision, hearing, self-care, or independent living) may need additional support during or after an emergency. Schools could work with individuals and their families to identify these needs and plan accordingly. For example, disabilities may affect an individual’s ability to shelter in place or evacuate. They may also have complex medical needs to consider. School closures can also impact access to disability services provided at or by the school. More information about disabilities and emergency preparedness is available at Disability and Health Emergency Preparedness and Children and Youth with Special Healthcare Needs in Emergencies.
- Housing status: Staff and students with unstable housing, or who do not have consistent access to air conditioning or heat, may have additional needs during weather-related or other emergencies.
- Family socioeconomic status: A family’s socioeconomic status can affect their ability to practice certain prevention measures, respond during emergencies, and recover afterwards.
- School socioeconomic status: A school’s socioeconomic status can affect the wraparound services they are able to provide, along with their financial ability to prepare for and respond to emergencies.
Develop a plan
Schools could use the partnerships they have built, the needs they have assessed, and requirements from their school district or LEA to develop an EOP. The EOP should be detailed and address steps to take during and after various types of short- and long-duration emergencies. Schools can assign roles in the EOP to staff members and ensure that plans account for the needs of children with access and functional needs.
Schools are encouraged to prepare for many different situations. Below is a list of example situations and how to prepare for and respond to them. Not all situations will apply to all schools. There are additional situations a school may face not listed here. However, this section highlights key principles to consider when preparing for a variety of emergencies.
Infectious disease outbreaks
For infectious diseases, schools can take multiple actions every day to help prevent the spread of disease among students and staff members. These include the following:
- Establishing and maintaining an infection prevention and control (IPC) advisory committee in collaboration with the local health department, tribal public health, hospital system, or healthcare providers to provide guidance on school infection control policies
- Supporting excused absences for students and staff members who are sick
- Ensuring that students and staff members are up to date on their vaccinations
- Optimizing ventilation systems
- Encouraging handwashing and covering of coughs and sneezes
- Following procedures for routine cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfection (when indicated)
- Developing systems to track illness-related absenteeism and monitor for trends
- Supporting training of school nurses and other healthcare staff in infection prevention and control policies and practices
- Advancing school health workforce and infrastructure
During an emergency, schools could use enhanced infection prevention measures relevant to the specific illness. Schools can work with local health officials to coordinate infection prevention, case management, contact tracing, and communication efforts.
Weather and natural disasters
Some weather-related emergencies require people to shelter in place, whereas others require people to evacuate.
Schools are encouraged to have enough supplies to shelter in place for at least 3 days, since it may take time for emergency workers to reach and support the school. Examples of supplies include food, water, medication, first aid supplies, hygiene products, various methods of communication, etc.
In the case of an evacuation, schools can prepare how they will evacuate and account for each student and staff member, how they will evacuate people with disabilities, where they will evacuate to, and how to communicate with guardians for reunification after the emergency.
Chemical and radiation emergencies
A chemical or radiation emergency can occur when there’s an accident (such as when transporting hazardous material, at a nuclear power plant, or at a chemical factory) or due to an intentional release.
Schools are encouraged to be prepared to either transport students and staff away from the chemical or radiation or shelter in place, based on the direction of authorities. Schools should consider having the supplies mentioned above for sheltering in place or evacuating, depending on what is directed by authorities. They can also have a way for staff and students who were exposed outside to shower and change, if possible, or to take other steps to decontaminate after exposure.
If directed to shelter in place, schools may need to seal off the space by turning off fans, air conditioning units, and furnaces, and by closing and locking all windows and doors. Food and beverage consumption should be limited to pre-packaged items. During a chemical emergency, schools can use duct tape and plastic sheeting to cover windows, doors, and vents. Alternatively, they can use towels or clothing in the vents and under the door. This seals the area from outside air while waiting on further direction from authorities.
Violence can occur at schools or in the surrounding community. Schools are encouraged to plan how they will work with law enforcement, emergency personnel, and media during an emergency. They could also consider how to identify potential threats and prevent violence from occurring within their school, how they would respond to various forms of violence at the school, and how to reunite students with their families after an emergency.
Gather supplies and records
Schools are encouraged to have a variety of supplies available ahead of time in case of an emergency. These supplies will vary based on the emergencies a school may face.
Schools can maintain student records necessary during an emergency, such as daily attendance, room assignments, seating charts, and parent/guardian contact information. These should also be accessible in case of evacuation.
It is important that staff members are familiar with their roles in the EOP. Schools can also communicate about relevant portions of the plan with parents and other guardians.
Schools can offer opportunities for students and staff to learn a variety of emergency preparedness and first aid skills, including infection prevention and control (IPC), CPR, and severe trauma response. The district can support these efforts through raising money and providing or contracting out trainings. These trainings can help ensure rapid action during an emergency.
Practice the plan
Schools could regularly conduct exercises so they can practice using their EOP to respond to both short- and long-duration emergencies. When conducting exercises, they can partner with local emergency management personnel, first responders, health departments, and relevant organizations.
During an emergency
Once an emergency begins, schools are encouraged to put their EOP into action, ensuring that they are working with partners to share and receive information. Schools are also encouraged to communicate with parents during this time.
After an emergency
After the emergency phase has ended, schools can take steps to assess the situation and recover.
Assess the situation
- Account for all students and staff members who were present in the building at the time of the emergency. This includes identifying any injuries or fatalities.
- Assess the building with relevant personnel (if applicable) to determine whether the building is safe for individuals to remain in (if sheltering in place) or return to (if they have evacuated).
- Monitor safety to ensure that recovery methods are safe for students and staff members. For example, using flashlights, keeping generators outside, and ensuring food and water are safe to consume.
Communication is key during and after an emergency. Having a communication plan in place can help schools more efficiently and quickly communicate to emergency personnel, media, staff members, students, and families after an emergency.
In many emergencies, particularly in those with a short duration and significant impact, students will need to be reunited with their guardians, whether at the school or an alternate location.
It is important for schools to reopen as soon as safely possible after an emergency. Schools play an important role in caring for children, providing nutrition, and other important services that may aid student and family recovery after an emergency. If any school buildings are not safe after a disaster, the school district can identify alternate locations or temporary facilities.
Support mental health needs
Oftentimes, emergencies can cause trauma and mental health issues for students and staff. Schools can play an important role in supporting the mental and behavioral needs for staff members and students. They can use both in-house and community services to support mental health after an emergency.
Identify lessons learned
After an emergency, school leaders, partner organizations, and other relevant individuals are encouraged to review the incident to identify lessons learned for future emergencies. School leaders can use these lessons to review and update the EOP. They can also identify best practices to share with a variety of partners.