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.

By Jennifer Tobin

Implications for Public Health

Because schools are integral to communities, it is important that districts work in partnership with public health, emergency management, and other community leaders to develop emergency operations and continuity plans.

Research shows that when adequately prepared, schools can and do buffer the negative impacts of disaster. My research examined how one Colorado school district kept more than 700 children together—rather than splitting them apart—when the 2013 Colorado Front Range Floods made their schools inaccessible.

Aside from family, schools are the primary source of social influence and protection in a child’s life. Schools provide nutrition, transportation, physical and mental health care, opportunities for peer-to-peer and adult-to-child relationship building, curriculum-based education, and free childcare. School buildings are also one of the only places—outside of detention facilities and courtrooms—that children and youth are legally required to be in the United States. Given this, many people assume that schools can and will protect children during extreme events.

Yet, the reality is that safety of children is often threatened due to aging school buildings and a lack of resources. When disasters inevitably do strike—and students need school-based services more than ever—they are often interrupted or discontinued indefinitely.

Missed school days have been identified as a leading contributor to the vulnerability of children, families, and their communities. Children and youth who are displaced from school for extended periods because of disaster tend to have higher dropout rates, increased criminal activity and lower grades, and may suffer from other educational, physical, psychological, and behavioral problems. Therfore it is imperative that school districts create and practice both emergency operations and continuity of operations plans to limit the number of school days missed after a disaster.

In my work, I define educational continuity as a process in which leaders from schools, school districts, and the community work together to continue providing education and all other school-based services for students following a disaster. My research identified three major strategies employed by the St. Vrain Valley School District in Colorado that contributed to a successful educational continuity process for Lyons schools:

Sufficient Capital and Capacity

The school district administrators dedicated time, money, and human capital to creating, practicing, and carrying out school emergency operations plans. It is critical for school districts—and the public funding mechanisms that support them—to invest in emergency management through financial resources and trained personnel. The success story from Lyons was made possible, in part, because of the highly educated staff, full-time emergency manager, and a fiscal budget that was available to respond immediately before any additional financial support arrived.

Robust Planning

Current national guidance on school preparedness highlights how important it is for schools to plan for recovery by creating Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans. These documents should include multiple strategies for educational continuity if disaster strikes. Although COOP plans are currently recommended, they are not mandatory nor enforced across the nation.

Figure 1. The Federal Emergency Management Agency Continuity of Operations Program Management Cycle (FEMA 2018).

Strong Leadership and School Management

Four leadership and management practices were integral to the disaster response and educational continuity process in Lyons:

  • Leading through distributed control
  • Shared narrative focused on the dedication to students
  • Well-established social bonds and community attachments
  • Common values of trust, communication, and collaboration

Each of these focal areas did not operate in isolation, but rather built on one another and together created a context for success.

These findings are the result of data collected through an in-depth review of scholarly literature on school preparedness, school leadership and management, and children and disaster; interviews with 67 school administrators, community leaders, teachers, counselors, parents, and students; and the analysis of over 100 documents related to school safety and disaster.

It is critical that school districts draw from the most recent guidance on school preparedness to increase their capacity in disaster. There are many free resources available to help guide emergency managers, public health officials, and school representatives seeking to prepare for recovery through developing, updating, and practicing emergency operations and continuity of operations plans.

Although written plans are an important first step to emergency preparedness, they do not guarantee a successful response to and recovery from a disaster. For written plans to be successful, they need to be well-informed, practiced frequently, and shared widely with all those who may be impacted by an event—this includes children and families, school staff, emergency management personnel, public health professionals, and others. Plans need to be flexible and cover a wide range of hazards and emergencies that could potentially disrupt school district operations. And plans need to be updated regularly, which requires the commitment, time, labor, and monetary resources of school districts, many of which may struggle to balance emergency planning with higher priorities, such as classroom instruction time, teacher training, and academic achievement goals.

Despite the real inequities that exist in every society—and therefore permeate schools and student lives—my hope is that this research will encourage taxpayers and policymakers to invest in school systems so they can provide the response and longer-term recovery resources that disaster-affected students so desperately deserve. My research shows that it is possible to plan for better outcomes when you have the time, dedication, and financial support to do so. It is clear what the solutions are, it will just take the political will and equitable distribution of resources to achieve a more just recovery for students.

Suggested Tools

Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans
U.S. Department of Education

Comprehensive guide to developing or revising existing school emergency operations plans.

Safer, Stronger, Smarter: A Guide to Improving School Natural Hazard Safety
Federal Emergency Management Agency

Comprehensive guide that provides up-to-date, authoritative information and guidance that schools can use to develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing natural hazards.

Continuity Guidance Circular
Federal Emergency Management Agency

Guidance on the integration of continuity concepts, a common foundation for understanding continuity, and the development of other tools and resources.

For a list of all the tools included in this special collection, visit the Children and Disasters Tool Index.