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8 Tips to Prepare Schools for Potential Disasters

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza talks about damages caused by floodwaters to classrooms at the A.G. Hilliard Elementary School in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in September.

—David J. Phillip/AP-File

From hurricanes to floods to fires, natural disasters can take a devastating toll on not only people, but on schools and critical technology infrastructure. Districts should have emergency preparedness plans in place to be ready to respond to both human and natural disasters, from hazardous material spills to tornadoes. And when it comes to natural disasters in particular, they should keep in mind the kinds of threats that are likely to affect their regions and build facilities with an eye toward withstanding those regional threats.

Here are a few tips for school officials in factoring school facilities into their emergency preparedness:

1. Think at the building level, not just the district level

Each building should also have a disaster response plan. Since school facilities are often used as shelters, such plans should be shared with local and state first responders and emergency management officials. The district should also make available to the public the portions of the plan that can be shared.

2. Disaster-proof your backups

In some cases, this will mean ensuring that computer servers storing essential information (both yours and your equipment and service vendors’) are kept in multiple locations. Increasingly, school-technology officials also recommend moving critical software and storage to the cloud.

A good example is the Houston school district, which has moved to the cloud both critical instructional software (including an online learning-management system that hosts a wide range of information that teachers and administrators rely on in class each day) and key administrative software (so services like payroll can proceed without interruption, even in the event of disaster).

“What are the two most important things that need to get done [during a disaster]? You need to cut purchase orders and pay people,” said Lenny Schad, Houston’s chief information technology officer. “The cloud just takes away disaster-recovery [complications] and makes it very seamless.”

3. Prepare your vendors

If a hurricane or other natural disaster hits, there’s likely to be facilities damage to everything from roofs and windows to laptop charging stations and Wi-Fi routers. And your district will likely be far from alone in trying to order replacements.

That’s why it’s important to notify vendors in advance of a potential disaster about the equipment and supplies you may need afterward, and also to make sure a plan is in place that will allow you to get emergency replacements quickly.

“We asked our larger vendors to have equipment on hand for us, in stock and ready to go” before Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, said Debbie Karcher, the chief technology officer of Miami-Dade schools. “If you have a close relationship, that isn’t a big thing for them.”

4. Authorize emergency spending ahead of time

Set up a separate account to which staff can charge expenses. After a disaster, there is no time to seek out the business manager or superintendent to sign off on spending large sums of money on big-ticket items, according to Michael Eugene, the chief operations officer in Florida’s Orange County School system.

This separate account also makes it easier to track disaster-related spending, which also comes in handy when the district gets around to filling out Federal Emergency Management Agency applications or other paperwork for aid, grants, or reimbursement for disaster-related spending.

5. Have the information you and others will need, including maps and documents

After a disaster, “you’re going to be sending crews out to multiple areas in the district and tracking where the damage is and where people are going,” Schad said. “Have a good district map, and have building maps.”

It’s also important to know in advance exactly what FEMA and your insurance providers are going to require. There likely are rules around how damage must be documented, how information is to be tracked and shared, and more.

“There’s a lot of money that can be lost if this isn’t done correctly,” Karcher said.

6. Don’t overlook the basics

If possible, unplug computers, copiers, printers, and other electronics in advance of a potential disaster.

If flooding seems likely, make sure portable facilities (and the equipment within them) are secured in advance.

Maintain ample reserve fuel supplies—getting gasoline after a hurricane might not be easy. Ensure there is food to last at least five days. During prolonged closures districts often continue to provide meals for low-income students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

And after a disaster, staff and volunteers may find themselves needing to navigate hazardous buildings. Make sure you have plenty of masks, boots, flashlights, gloves, and other staples.

7. Coordinate teams in advance

Facilities and information-technology staffers will likely be working hand-in-hand to monitor networks and power, respond to help-desk calls, make site visits, assess damage, decide whether it’s safe to reopen buildings, and provide key information to be made available to the public.

In the chaos and confusion that inevitably come with natural disasters, Schad said, consolidation and coordination are key to making sure all those tasks go smoothly.

“There needs to be a really tight integration with the technology team and the facilities team,” he said. “You want to be very clear in what you’re providing.”

8. Consider risks when picking school sites

Districts should think seriously about where they build schools and the possible expense related to placing schools in certain areas. Is a school located in a flood zone? Are there frequent expenses tied to clean-up from flood damages or flood-proofing schools? How about relocating the school?

According to a Pew Charitable Trust brief released in August, more than 6,300 schools across the country are located in flood zones. One school, McDowell Elementary School in McDowell, Ky., was flooded five times between 2007 and 2015, with a 2013 flood leaving behind $60,000 in damages. After paying out so much money and considering the age of the school, the county school board shut down the school this summer and relocated students to a new school on the grounds of a high school campus in an area not prone to flooding, according to the report.

The Pew report also recommends that districts use federal reimbursement dollars in ways that will reduce future risks.

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Benjamin Herold,Denisa Superville

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