How to do school safety drills while not colliding with COVID-19 safeguards

Posted by on July 18, 2020

Quick takeaways:

  • Many educators have yet to tackle how they will conduct school safety drills which conflict with COVID-19 social distancing and related best practices
  • State department of education have yet to provide any guidance to school leaders for active shooter, lockdown, fire, tornado, and other drills
  • State-mandated drill requirements have yet to be temporarily waived
  • State boards of education should issue guidance on drills to local schools
  • School boards may wish to consider amending policies to allow superintendents to temporarily waive certain drill mandates that conflict with health emergencies
  • School leaders should consult with school safety, legal counsel, and school psychology experts regarding adopting amended emergency drill protocols as described in the last section below

As educators scramble to put together plans for school reopening, many superintendents, principals, and heads of schools have yet to tackle how they will conduct school safety drills in a new normal of social distancing.  Meanwhile, many state education departments have yet to provide any guidance to school leaders for active shooter, lockdown, fire, tornado, and other drills.

School emergency drill practices conflict with COVID-19 protections

Best practices for school emergency drills and for COVID-19 are polarities — that is, at two opposite extremes on a continuum.  For example, in lockdowns students and teachers are taught to move to “hard corners” of a room where they cluster up to get out of the line of sight of a potential shooter outside the classroom door.  Yet COVID-19 best practices tell us to social distance at least six feet from one another.  It is already hard to fit several dozen students in one hard corner, and trying to do so while social distancing is not physically possible.

These polarities also play out in other drills. Students and educators are graded by fire marshals on their timeliness in existing a school during a fire drill. Exiting in single lines, at least six feet apart from one another, would add minutes on top of minutes to clear a building. Likewise, principals in many schools already struggle to find safe locations for students and staff to shelter from a tornado or other natural disaster.  Sheltering in place, building evacuations, parent/guardian reunifications, and other protocols are also at risk of colliding.

States mandate drills, but have yet to issue temporary waivers or guidance

The Education Commission of the States reports that the majority of states require some type of school safety and emergency preparedness drill (active shooter, lockdown, evacuation, shelter in place, etc.). These drills are on top of fire, weather, and natural disaster drills.  These drills are often not simply “guidance” or “suggestions,” but are codified in state law.

To date, state education departments have yet to provide waivers or guidance for school safety drills. This recent article from Florida highlights this quandary.

So do school leaders violate state law and not practice school safety drills due to COVID-19?  Or do they violate COVID-19 best practices? Is there a happy medium somewhere in between these two extremes?

State education departments should issue guidance, school boards may wish to tweak policies

State legislators, governors, and/or state boards of education may need to formally act to provide temporary waivers for drills that conflict with COVID-19 safety practices. At a minimum, they should provide local school leaders with specific guidance on what schools should consider, if there is flexibility and where, and what best practices should be employed until COVID-19 is in our nation’s rearview mirror.

Local school boards may also wish to explore amending their policies to allow superintendents to temporarily waive school district policies mandating specific types of drills that conflict with health emergencies. This could potentially remove or reduce an obstacle that could arise in litigation if someone sues the school, claiming school leaders deviated from standard drill practices mandated by board policies and a student or other claimant was subsequently injured.

How schools can do safety drills while not colliding with COVID-19 safeguards

Superintendents, principals, and other heads of schools may wish to explore some practical options for reasonably preparing students and staff for a real emergency, while not putting them at risk by violating COVID-19 best practices. In a real emergency, COVID-19 safeguards may go “out the window,” as one administrator told me, forcing students and staff to lean back on their traditional training and drill implementation.

We are certainly not attorneys and cannot give you legal advice. School leaders should consult with school safety, legal counsel, and school psychology experts. But from the perspective of school safety experts, steps for school leaders to consider might include:

  1. First deal with the social-emotional trauma being experienced by students, teachers, support staff, and administrators related to COVID-19. Many will be bringing in a great deal of anxiety to school on “Day One.”  Starting off with school emergency drills as soon as everyone walks in the door might only add to that trauma and strain.
  2. That said, waiting too long to address the various emergency drills also is not prudent. School leaders should work with counselors, psychologists, and their faculty and staff to identify the first opportunity to reasonably broach the subject of emergency drills.
  3. Classroom discussions about why the various drills are important, rather than diving into full drill practices, might be a good starting point.
  4. Superintendents and principals may want to have teachers and administrators then verbally walk students and staff through what to do in the various real potential emergencies, and subsequently demonstrate appropriate techniques, identify safe space locations, etc. For example, instead of rushing to hard corners in an actual drill, teachers could discuss a lockdown and then show students the area while verbally explaining to them what they would do in a real lockdown situation. In a fire drill, teachers could walk students out of the school as school leaders and fire marshals determine they should do in a real fire evacuation, and show them where to go to and how they would physically distance at their rally point area.
  5. Debriefings are now more critical than ever. Teachers, support staff, and administrators should have strategic discussions and, debrief anxiety and trauma the adults may be feeling. Debriefings should also be held with students after instructive presentations and, of course, following any actual drills are done in response to an actual incident.

School safety remains a critical element of school operations that must be a part of educational plans, even during highly unusual times such as COVID-19. Just as in “normal” times, before the school doors open, safety plans must be included with the many other aspects of school opening.

Ken Trump is the President of National School Safety and Security Services

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5 thoughts on “How to do school safety drills while not colliding with COVID-19 safeguards

  1. Blair Hall says:

    Good information to move forward with.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Thank you! 🙂

  2. Karen ---- Cocita says:

    Thanks for the insight- this has been a concern of mine for awhile now as we prepare to transition back into the classroom. Thanks, Ken!

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Yes, it is a tricky situation indeed! Thanks.

  3. Starke Evans says:

    Yes….inquiring about the cost of your “Proactive School Security and Emergency Preparedness Planning” training. I am looking for at least 1/2 day with school principals and administrators. Anywhere from 15 to 25 participants

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