New Report Highlights Need for School/Child Care Preparedness

September 24th, 2013

By Amanda Eddy, CHHS Research Assistant

The start of a new school year often brings excitement for children as they look forward to seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and carefully selecting their outfit for the first day. But for parents, the first day of school can bring fear. Just last year the nation watched in horror as a gunman in Newton, Connecticut entered Sandy Hook Elementary School killing 20 children and 6 adults. We were again devastated when rescue workers in Moore, Oklahoma found the bodies of seven third-graders who died when their school crumbled after a series of tornados pounded the small town.

Disasters, natural and man-made, can strike at any time. Since Hurricane Katrina, the federal government has recommended minimum standards to prepare children for just such emergencies. But according to Save the Children’s 2013 Report Card on Children in Disasters, 28 states and the District of Columbia have failed to meet these minimum standards. Per Save the Children, 17 states do not require child care providers to have an evacuation plan, 16 states do not require child care providers to have a family reunification plan, 24 states do not require child care providers to have a plan for children with disabilities or special needs, and six states and the District of Columbia do not require schools to have all-hazard plans. Even states that have developed adequate emergency plans often do not practice the plans regularly and many parents are unaware of, or not well-informed about, such plans.

This record disaster year coupled with high-profile school tragedies underscore the need for emergency preparedness in schools. The effectiveness of emergency planning was highlighted at the beginning of this school year when a gunman entered the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia armed with an AK-47 rifle. The school regularly trained and drilled for dangerous situations, so much so that some staff members initially thought this was another drill. Thanks to that training, Antoinette Tuff, a school clerk, was able to talk the gunman down while signaling a code to two other office workers, immediately triggering a phone tree to notify teachers to lock their doors and evacuate with the children to safety. No one was injured.

A new high school in New York City has taken a slightly different approach by integrating emergency management into its core curriculum. The Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management, a public school, is teaming up with partners such as FEMA, the New York City Office of Emergency Management, the American Red Cross, and the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute to help add emergency management to the curriculum. Students will be introduced to emergency management in their freshman year and will select a specialty (response and recovery, emergency communications and technology, or emergency management) by the end of their sophomore year. The school also requires students to complete internships, volunteer in the community, and complete certifications such as first aid and CPR.

Locally in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, CHHS is supporting the work of regional planning groups that will soon launch a campaign to inform private and public school administrators about best practices for emergency preparedness, and help school officials understand all-hazard emergency planning for events such as natural disasters, active shooters, school violence, and even behavioral issues. Seminars will provide a forum for school administration to discuss relevant trends and topics about resilience and best practices in school emergency preparedness. Stakeholders at all levels will get an opportunity to exchange ideas and collaborate on planning efforts.  Other local efforts CHHS staff has had a hand in include the development of county Family Assistance Centers which provide information and services in the wake of emergencies and can be used as family reunification sites, and emergency preparedness outreach tailored specifically for young audiences.

For those unable to attend the new school in New York or one of the school emergency management seminars, Save the Children has provided a Disaster Checklist for parents and child care professionals. Tips include making a plan, having a communication strategy, and practicing emergency drills. For child care providers and schools, it’s important to communicate the plans to all staff, parents, and emergency responders so they can act accordingly. Save the Children also recommends that parents teach their children how to act during an emergency.

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