A mural project entitled "One Million Faces, Rise to Shine" welcomed children back to their home school in Lyons after they had been displaced for nearly three months ©Jennifer Tobin, 2015.

There is no doubt that when disaster strikes, schools have a role to play. The question is, will there be enough information, resources, and capacity to respond in a way that facilitates recovery? Or will schools struggle to continue educating students under the duress of a disaster?

After floods ripped through the town of Lyons, Colorado in 2013, the schools emerged as one of the former. Within just eleven days of the decimating flood, both Lyons Elementary and the Middle/Senior High School resumed classes in the nearby town of Longmont. Students and teachers—who were able to keep the same pre-flood class schedule—had at least one element of stability restored.

Considering the vital functions schools serve for students and communities and the protective mechanisms they offer following a crisis, more attention should be paid to their organizational capacity to respond to disasters and provide educational continuity.

A recent examination of how the St. Vrain Valley School District prepared for, responded to, and continued to educate students after the flood does just that—offering clear examples of how to plan for displacement and educational continuity, while documenting ways in which preexisting organizational structures influence disaster recovery.

The findings are part of Educational Continuity following the 2013 Colorado Front Range Floods: A Case Study Of Lyons Elementary and Middle/Senior High Schools, a dissertation recently defended by the Natural Hazards Center’s Jennifer Tobin.

To get to the root of how the St. Vrain Valley School District was able to respond so quickly, under such extreme circumstances, Tobin interviewed community leaders, administrators, teachers, counselors, parents, and students and analyzed data such as preparedness plans, student photo and story books, demographics, and formal and personal documents related to the flood. She found five primary factors that influenced the schools’ exceptional recovery.

Preparedness Planning. Long before the disaster, the school district purposefully dedicated time and resources to preparedness planning, including hiring a full-time emergency manager who organized critical training exercises. This knowledge and planning contributed to the district’s capacity to serve students affected by the floods.

Organizational Ethos. The school district had a well-established organizational ethos built on distributed control, dedication to students, strong social bonds, and trust between and across organizational members. This allowed district employees to take swift action to respond to the disaster and work together as a team to meet the needs of students and families.

Superintendent Support. The superintendent of the district, who has a history of being an experienced and compassionate leader, was one of the main drivers of both strong organizational principles and preparedness planning.

Dedication to Recovery. Parents, teachers, staff, and administrators were dedicated to facilitating recovery for students, including reestablishing routines, promoting adaptability, and implementing creative methods—such as art and storytelling—to assist in healing.

Socioeconomic and Demographic Characteristics. The community of Lyons is mostly white, educated, and upper-middle class. The school district has similar demographics and a robust fiscal budget that provided access to immediate financial resources. These factors allowed school leaders and affected families to draw on existing educational, social, cultural, and material resources to ensure educational continuity for Lyons students.

While Lyons offers a continuity success story that can provide a roadmap to a more resilient recovery for other schools, Tobin’s work also points to the need for schools and school districts to be more formally integrated into community-level disaster preparedness and response frameworks.

“It was clear to me that the success of Lyons schools was built on years of relationship building and school-community partnerships,” Tobin said. “These informal relationships were the foundation of their recovery—the district emergency manager had a close working relationship with county and state officials; the superintendent and the town administrator of Lyons already trusted one another. These networks cannot be discounted and should become formally integrated into community- and district-level disaster planning.”

More research is needed to fully understand how preparedness, response, and recovery efforts are shaped by the organizational capacity of schools, and how plays out in different locations and social contexts. But Tobin argues that, regardless of capacity, there are free resources available to guide planning for all communities.

“Every school and school district has a responsibility to keep students safe when disaster strikes." Tobin observed. "Improving knowledge and education around school safety planning is always an option. It just takes the time, commitment, and dedication of caring adults to make that happen.”