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When a Crisis Hits, Will Your School Be Ready?

When a Crisis Hits, Will Your School Be Ready?

The growing coronavirus outbreak got me thinking again about schools being crisis ready. The likelihood of you having to address coronavirus in your school is slim to none, but it should make you consider the threats you could realistically face. It doesn't matter what kind--you need to be prepared for an active shooter situation, a tornado threat, a widespread flu outbreak or any other number of situations that require you to react sometimes at a moment's notice. If something serious happened in one of your schools, would you be ready?

There's a lot that goes into creating a thorough crisis plan. And an essential part of your preparation should include a comprehensive communication strategy. You must be able to efficiently communicate with staff, students, parents, board members, your community and media outlets (that no doubt will appear on your campus to report the incident). So what do you need to address? 

Below is a list of critical items to consider when creating a crisis response plan, including a communication strategy that shares accurate, continuous information with your public.

Create your crisis response team

Identify key internal staff who will form your school/district crisis team. As positions change and people move on, reevaluate this list every year (or more often if necessary).

  • Superintendent
  • Communications director/public information officer
  • School safety coordinator (SRO, security staff)
  • Counselor
  • Nurse
  • Assistant principal or other designee to supervise students/staff
  • Assistant principal or other designee to coordinate student/parent reunion
  • Translator (if necessary)
  • Several individuals to cover logistics (building, food/water, transportation, supplies/equipment, etc.)
  • Finance leader (to document crisis expenses, handle reimbursements, etc.)

In addition to internal staff, your crisis team should include key first responders within your community:

  • Police
  • Fire
  • Other community emergency official(s)
  • City manager/other city official(s)
  • Health care official(s)

Create an official list of all personnel selected for the team. Each person should have his/her contact information listed, and all members of the team should have a copy.

Convene regularly to discuss overall emergency plan, identify unanswered questions and make necessary updates

  • Are team members familiar with building floor plans?
  • Do appropriate team members have necessary door keys?
  • Have you determined who will be responsible for shutting off utilities (if necessary)?
  • Do you have an evacuation plan? If so, does the team have a neighborhood map? Have you identified an off-campus evacuation site?
  • Do you have a designated area where parents pick up children?
  • Where are first aid supplies located?
  • Is your lock-down procedure defined? Do all appropriate staff know code words/phrases?
  • Does each classroom need to have an emergency lockdown kit? If so, how will your district fund these?

Identify communication priorities in your plan

  • If you do not have a communications director/public information officer on staff, who will be the district spokesperson?
  • Do you have a designated staging area for the press? Who will be responsible for working with the media and providing regular information updates?
  • What outlets will you use to communicate with your various constituents? Social media? Website? Phone/text? Parent communication app?
  • How will you communicate if any of your main communication channels do not work?
  • While frequency may change depending on the situation, how often will you update the media?

Practice, practice, practice

  • Your crisis team needs to practice regular emergency scenarios. Every person must be 100% clear and confident in his/her role. Do not leave anything to chance. When a crisis arises, our brains do not work at full capacity, and we cannot cross our fingers and hope everything goes okay. We must rely on extensive training and preparation.
  • You're already holding regular drills with staff and students. Continue. Even students need to be 100% clear on what needs to happen during an emergency: how to evacuate, how to shelter in place, not second-guessing the teacher or staff member they're with, etc.

I always say consistent communication is critical to keep your community informed of your district's goings-on and celebrations. It's even more critical in the midst of a crisis situation. When your community is not kept in the loop, especially when their children are involved, they are not happy. And rightfully so. Make communication a priority.

Note: These suggestions and questions are just the tip of the iceberg when establishing a thorough crisis response plan. If you do not have one in place or you haven't reviewed your existing one in ages and it probably needs updating, do not waste any more time.

I've personally taken multiple Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management and FEMA courses on proper emergency procedures and protocols. We also have several former superintendents on staff who previously developed plans for their districts, so we are happy to work with you on creating or improving your plan.

No question: district staff are already overwhelmed with the day-to-day, but this is an issue you simply cannot ignore. Having a plan, practicing it frequently and being ready for an emergency situation may literally be the difference between lives saved and lives lost. Don't delay.

Sarah Julian

Director, Communications

Sarah serves as the Director of Communications for the OPSRC. In this role, she provides support, consultation and training on a variety of critical tools and PR functions, including communication plans, social media policies, crisis communications, media relations and website content.

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