Authored by: Kevin M. Craig
Over the past year, we have been thrust into an environment where personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and social distancing have overwhelmingly eclipsed traditional pre-COVID-19 security measures. Prior to the pandemic, schools were enhancing physical security on a trajectory that was driven by incidents of school violence and the need to not only make our schools safe, but more importantly make our children and parents feel safe when entering our buildings or sending kids off to school for the day.
In addition to the physical security enhancements implemented to safeguard our schools, school climate initiatives, mental health services, and trauma-informed education were on the forefront of the movement to create learning environments that are not only physically safe, but welcoming, inclusive, and connected.
School leaders, teachers, support staff and students have risen to the challenge of remote learning and hybrid schedules to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. They have done so in the face of significant challenges and personal risk.
In spite of our best efforts to facilitate a learning environment where all students continue to advance, there will undoubtedly be some level of learning loss due to this pandemic and the requisite shift in how schools operate. The same is true for school safety and security. With an intense focus on temperature screenings, plexiglass barriers and masks, we have, in some ways, unintentionally neglected common sense security measures and practices. Things like suspicious activity reporting, assessing security, and training our staff on security protocols have been minimized. Propped doors and open windows became a mechanism to allow for the exchange of fresh air rather than a forbidden breach of security and access control as they were before COVID-19.
For the vast majority of schools in New Jersey, staff and students have not practiced a school lockdown in nearly a year. State officials have recommended other drills so as not to conflict with social distancing requirements. Unfortunately, the lack of practice or even discussion about these important responses results in learning loss of a different kind. Particularly vulnerable are staff and students who are new to the building or district and do not have the benefit of recalling how drills were conducted in the pre-COVID environment.
The time has come to refocus our school security efforts and get back to basics. While social distancing and face coverings will likely persist for some time, common sense security practices should begin to re-emerge as we endeavor to transition back to in-person learning.
Reviewing Emergency Plans and Renewing Relationships
School Safety and Security and Emergency Operations Plans should be reviewed and updated at least annually. Much has changed in the way schools have operated in the past year. These changes should be reflected in these plans to memorialize the efforts schools have taken to adjust to the pandemic. Traditionally, experiencing a crisis drives changes to procedures and operations when it comes to security. While it is not prudent to change emergency procedures like evacuations and lockdowns to accommodate temporary mitigation measures, other parts of our emergency operations may benefit from this experience. Schools can use lessons learned from the pandemic to formally establish or revise Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP). These COOP measures can be used for future incidents, beyond infectious disease, where buildings cannot be occupied for extended periods of time and teaching and learning must continue virtually. While state education departments ultimately will determine if remote learning plans will meet daily attendance requirements for other emergencies, it appears that remote learning will remain a viable option. Additionally, much has been learned about how we can continue to deliver other services such as counseling, mental health, meal distribution, and fulfillment of special education requirements during a crisis. Incorporating these lessons learned will greatly improve our formal plans.
Remote meetings and conference calls have dominated our schedules since early 2020. Gradually increasing building occupancy limits and returning to in-person meetings, even if socially distanced, provide opportunities to reconnect with planning partners and stakeholders. When it comes to safety and security, police, fire, EMS, and emergency management partnerships are vital. Reconnecting and renewing agreements annually is an important part of staying connected and ensuring that everyone is on the same page. Other partnerships have likely evolved during this challenging time as well. Representatives of public health services, food service providers, risk managers, and legal representatives have played an increased role during this time and should be added to the planning team if not already included. Renewing relationships with these important partners will ensure that everyone is prepared to meet current and future challenges together.
Exercising Procedures and Training the School Community
The most common way that schools exercise emergency procedures is by conducting drills. Required drills vary by state, but most require drills in some form and frequency. While a few states have suspended drill requirements during the pandemic, most have continued to require drills with recommended or allowable adaptations due to the important role drills play in preparedness. While some have avoided conducting traditional lockdown drills to avoid compromising social distancing requirements, not practicing or engaging in discussions around these protocols may leave staff and students vulnerable. Common sense adaptations can be made to reinforce roles and expectations, while still taking precautions to mitigate the spread of disease. Classroom discussions where teachers demonstrate the procedures and discuss student actions without moving students is one way to do this. Conducting tabletop exercises where smaller groups of key staff members are “walked through” a scenario and discuss responses in a non-threatening environment is another great option. These drills and exercises enable schools to keep safety and security procedures “front of mind” while complying with other mitigation requirements.
We cannot reasonably expect that the school community will respond effectively in an emergency if we don’t train them properly. At a minimum, disseminating up to date security procedures to staff and training them on appropriate responses is a necessity. This dissemination of information and related training should also be at least an annual occurrence. Conducting this training annually will ensure that all staff are prepared to fulfill their roles and responsibilities and that any changes to procedures are communicated and understood. Of significant importance is providing this training to new employees and substitutes as well. Whether virtual or in-person, training is key to preparedness.