The core responsibility of a school is, of course, the education of its students. To do that, parents must trust a school to care for their child’s well-being during the hours that they are in attendance. The school must ensure that each student gets the educational resources, instruction, and support that they need. It also must take the steps necessary to provide a safe environment to do that learning.
But even if a school were to provide a completely stable and positive environment, the students and staff would still face threats. Many emergencies are outside of our control. That said, schools must try to keep everyone within as safe as possible.
The only way to be reasonably prepared for emergencies, no matter where they come from, is to plan for them. Having a clear and concise strategy in place for potential threats and hazards limits the chaos that can ensue in the face of a crisis and maps out the right action to take to preserve the health and safety of students, staff, and administrators.
Mandates for school emergency preparedness exist in many states already, so you likely already have a plan in place. Yet, threats shift and hazards change. For instance, few anticipated the challenges that would be brought by a prolonged shutdown caused by a worldwide pandemic. As COVID-19 infections accelerated, however, schools were forced to execute long-term shutdown plans. Some managed that well. Others were not as prepared.
This is why it’s important to review and update emergency plans on a regular basis, preferably annually. Revising your plan allows you to account for new situations and incorporate new solutions that make your emergency management more effective. The planning process can be involved and daunting, though. Having a tool to help you capture all the necessary plan elements can simplify the process.
Whether you are creating a plan from scratch or updating and improving an existing plan, this emergency preparedness checklist offers structure and guidance in what should be included. Use it to find and address gaps in your current plan or as a baseline to create an entirely new one.
Your preparedness plan needs to take into account the full range of students and staff in your school community, as well as include perspectives from emergency planners, first responders, and others.
Checklist Item 1: Create your preparedness team
Creating the right team is key to a successful planning process. Including a variety of perspectives and knowledge in your group allows you to account for needs that you may not think or be aware of. It also brings together specialized experience from multiple disciplines.
Your team should include the following:
While having a diverse group is optimal, it’s also important to keep the group small enough to allow for collaboration between members.
Checklist Item 2: Standardize your approach
Such a diverse group requires a common language and context to be established. Because each person brings their own perspective, they may also have different understandings of what is to be accomplished and how, as well as the meanings of various terms.
Creating a standard approach facilitates mutual understanding between the group and a more streamlined plan development process. Consider including a glossary of important terms and establishing a command structure that answers questions like, “Who do I go to if I have a question?” or “Who can approve an action I need to take to complete this task?” If your community is especially diverse, it might even be worthwhile to introduce cultural differences and expectations, so all members of the team can treat each other with respect.
Checklist Item 3: Define roles and responsibilities
Your planning team’s roles will be different from those assigned as part of your emergency plan. The responsibilities of the planning team will include completing evaluations, contributing to goals and objectives, or managing the responses and plans from a given group, like first responders or emergency management professionals. Some responsibilities will be shared across all team members, while others will be assigned to specific people based on their experience or job outside of the planning team.
Checklist Item 4: Assign the roles
Each team member has been included for a reason, and each has a part to play in the process. The more that team members are aware of what is expected of them, the better that they will be able to complete the work that needs to be done.
As mentioned, some people will have a specific role to play, such as leading safety evaluations or documenting current food safety protocols. Others will have more general roles, like to serve as advisors for the final plan. These team members will have responsibilities like attending planning meetings and collaborating with the larger team to review and approve the plan.
Checklist Item 5: Develop a timeline and schedule
Like many projects, without a schedule, your emergency plan update could take longer than it should. Setting a goal for when the review and revisions should be completed will help drive tasks.
You should also determine a regular schedule of meetings. Preparedness planning is an ongoing process, not one and done. Meetings should be scheduled frequently during the active revision process, but even after updates are complete, there is still a need for review, collaboration, and communication between the team members.
Once your team is in place, you can begin to assess the hazards and threats to the school. Once these have been identified through review and assessment, they can be prioritized and addressed.
Checklist Item 6: Identify both threats and hazards
Your plan is made up of preventative and responsive measures to threats and hazards. But is there a difference? From both an identification and management standpoint, the answer is yes.
A hazard is a condition, object, or situation that poses a danger and can lead directly to a risk. For instance, a hazard might be chemicals stored within the schools or a utility failure.
A threat, for the purpose of school emergency planning, is more focused on the actions of an individual or group on an individual, group, or entire community. Gangs in schools are a threat, as are cyber attacks. Suicide is also considered a threat.
Your planning team will be your initial source of information about potential hazards and threats, using their own experience as a guide and providing historical instances. From there, team members should reach out to local authorities, state and federal agencies, and even other schools in the region. Having a school board member on your planning team is helpful here, as they can act as a liaison between your school and these groups.
Your potential list of hazards and threats should include:
Checklist Item 7: Define your evaluation methodology
Your list of potential threats and hazards may be overwhelming, but it might also include items that are of less concern. To appropriately assess the risks and which are the greatest concern, you need a tool that allows you to evaluate each threat and hazard in a similar way.
Define a list of criteria that can be used for evaluation, will apply to every threat or hazard, and can guide you in prioritizing. The criteria can include:
The rating ranges that you use should be specific enough to meet your planning needs, but not so specific that you have dozens of rating levels to choose from. Consider limiting the number of rating values to fewer than five.
Add your criteria and rating scales to a worksheet or matrix that can be completed by team members during assessments and evaluations.
Checklist Item 8: Conduct threat and hazard assessments
Once you have a tool that encourages objective measurement of potential threats and hazards, it’s time to complete your assessments. Assessing your school’s risks and vulnerabilities will inform which threats and hazards are the highest priority, as well as how to address those concerns in your plan.
This is where the diversity of your team will serve you well. When a site assessment is done, for instance, a facility manager may see one set of risks, while a first responder might see another, and a special education teacher may see a third.
Assessment types to consider, as well as example questions, include the following.
Capacity or resource assessment: What capabilities and assets already exist? What skills already exist within the staff or administration? These should include an inventory of supplies and equipment.
Site assessment: How accessible is access to the school, the grounds, and the building itself? How many doors and windows? Are they easy to traverse? What shape is the building in? Does access enable or prohibit those with functional disabilities? Can emergency vehicles reach the buildings?
Culture and climate assessment: Does the school have an overall supportive and positive environment? Is there a bullying problem? Are there positive support systems in place? How safe do the students and staff feel? Is there a means of objectively tracking and evaluating students with behavioral issues?
School threat assessment: Are there students, staff, parents, or others that might pose a threat to the school? Are there students who show signs of chronic absenteeism? This assessment should be conducted by qualified staff, such as mental health professionals, and should respect privacy rights and individual civil liberties. It may also include a review of threat assessment teams and policies.
Checklist Item 9: Prioritize threats and hazards
With your assessments complete and your threats and hazards categorized and evaluated, you can now prioritize each one. Some threats listed may be more important in your geographic area than others, for example. It’s also valuable to pay attention to the makeup of your student and staff population, such as age and demographics, as this pertains to various threat metrics.
Checklist Item 10: Define the format of goals and objectives
The goal of preparedness planning is, of course, to keep everyone safe. But it goes beyond that. For instance, you may have overarching goals that focus on prevention more than in previous years. In addition to your goals for the plan overall, you need goals at the level of each hazard or threat. These should describe the desired outcome before, during, and after the event.
Objectives are the specific ways that you plan on reaching your goals. So, while each hazard should have three goals, each goal will have several objectives.
For example, for a tornado, you may have the following goals:
Goal—Tornado Hazard—Before: Ensure that all students are aware of their designated shelter-in-place location.
Goal—Tornado Hazard—During: Protect all persons on school grounds from injury.
Goal—Tornado Hazard—After: Assess injured for medical attention, and assess the building for damage.
Objectives provide directive actions for the goals. For instance:
Goal—Tornado Hazard—Before: Ensure that all students are aware of their designated shelter-in-place location.
Objective 1: Provide at least one tornado drill for all students prior to storm season.
Objective 2: Post signs in hallways and classrooms to indicate shelter-in-place locations.
Objective 3: Ensure that all students are aware of the actions to take when they hear a tornado siren.
Checklist Item 11: Define your goals and objectives
The next step is writing down the goals and objectives for each of the threats and hazards you’ve identified.
Checklist Item 12: Define the timeline for each hazard or threat response
Each threat or hazard has a time horizon all its own, from the amount of warning that you may have to the length of time that the impacts are felt afterward. Even individual events will have different windows in which the threat or hazard is active.
For each crisis, define the scenario and the amount of time that you’ll have to respond. A snowstorm or severe cold might give you hours or even days to enact your plans, a tornado minutes, and an active shooter mere seconds.
Checklist Item 13: Identify decision points
Crises have two types of decision points: those that can be seen and discussed ahead of time and those that must be made in the moment. As much as possible, try to anticipate the points in time that will require decisions. A walkthrough of your scenario and timeline may help uncover those moments. Then, discuss the information that will be important to make a decision at that time.
Checklist Item 14: Define the course of action for each threat or hazard
Your goals and objectives will help guide you as you document the course of action needed for each threat or hazard. Define the action, who will be responsible, the time window for the action, and what must occur before or after it.
This is also the time to include the equipment, resources, or technologies needed to successfully execute your plan of action. Again, your goals and objectives can guide this process. If your goal is to keep track of all students during an evacuation, you may want to consider an automated attendance system. If one of your objectives is to prevent access to visitors who pose a threat, having a visitor monitoring system that flags registered sex offenders would be an asset.
Checklist Item 15: Evaluate action plans
Plan evaluation is another area in which your diverse planning team is an asset. Consider what each course of action means to the different populations within the school. What do you do for students with anxiety? What if a staff member is partially deaf and can’t hear orders?
Evaluating your plan for the effectiveness of the community also means considering actions that may happen before or after an event. If your communication plans involve sending out emails, you’ll need to have alternates for families without access. If you have a large Latinx/Hispanic population in your school, you’ll need to include notifications in both English and Spanish.
As you evaluate your action plans, keep in mind that you must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you have an appropriate resource on your planning team, you may want to designate that person to be in charge of this requirement. Your plans may be solid but require tweaks like the addition of interpreters or staff members assigned to students or staff with additional assistance needs.
You’ve identified the hazards and threats and outlined your goals, objectives, and courses of action. Now it’s time to formalize your plan by documenting it, reviewing it, and getting team sign-off.
Checklist Item 16: Define the plan format
There are many guides, examples, and templates available that you can use to help you define your plan format. A typical plan contains the following.
Checklist Item 17: Write the plan
With this format in mind, you can begin to write the plan. As the plan is drafted, the planning team should provide input on the content. Your document should follow these guidelines:
Checklist Item 18: Review the plan
Once written, the plan must be reviewed—first by the planning team, then by any stakeholders who will need to implement the plan. It’s also important that the document be reviewed for compliance with laws and regulations.
Review your preparedness plan with an eye toward its usefulness, feasibility, clarity, completeness, and compliance. Gather comments and feedback and make the necessary edits.
Checklist Item 19: Planning team and leadership sign-off
Once the planning team is satisfied with the document, they should provide their sign-off as an approval of the content. Further steps should not be taken until all team members have agreed that the plan is ready for presentation.
The team should then release the plan to administrators and board members for review. These leaders will provide the final approval of the document.
Checklist Item 20: Share the plan
Once all approvals are received, the emergency preparedness plan can then be shared with appropriate parties, such as first responders, local emergency management, and local, regional, and state agencies.
Many schools also loan or rent space to community groups after hours, on weekends, and so forth. Those groups should also be given access to the document and asked for written acknowledgment that they have reviewed it completely.
Checklist Item 21: Practice the plan
When the plan has been codified, the real work of preparation begins. Training and practicing your action plans are vital to being ready for what you’ve outlined in your document.
Training should be conducted with any staff, teacher, or administrator who has been assigned a role as part of a response. They should fully understand what is expected of them and be given time to review their responsibilities.
Practice can come in a variety of forms. Some incidents require full drills, including local emergency teams and first responders. Others may only involve the school population, while still others may only need a tabletop simulation. Schedule these practice drills and simulations like you would any other important event within your school.
Checklist Item 22: After-action reviews
After-action reviews are critical for both practice sessions and real-life scenarios. By reviewing what happened, how well or poorly a response was executed, and what could have been done better, you will be constantly improving your emergency preparedness.
After-action reviews are also important because they can help identify holes in your processes or procedures. Those may require a new action, different equipment, or even an investigation into new solutions.
Checklist Item 23: Priority updates
For any drill or simulation with significant issues, consider updating your plan further. Practice will uncover flaws in your action plans that will need immediate attention.
Checklist Item 24: Evaluation of new solutions
If your after-action review suggests that a new product or solution may simplify the process or make students and staff safer, this is the time to research and evaluate them. It’s also a good opportunity to identify solutions that may double as preventative measures. Once you’ve uncovered the right options, you can begin the budget and RFP process to help you implement them.
Checklist Item 25: Incorporate changes in policies or personnel
Both policies and personnel can change before your next planned update. These should be incorporated into your plans as appropriate. If a policy change impacts security or response actions or a staff member who held a named role during a crisis leaves, you should make those updates as soon as possible.
Checklist Item 26: Add in new or emerging threats
Our world is constantly changing, and the need to re-evaluate threats and hazards doesn’t end once your leaders approve your document. As new situations arise, be ready to re-evaluate or add to your plans. Even if a new threat or hazard hasn’t directly impacted your school yet, it’s worth making the time to evaluate its impact on your community and take the appropriate steps to incorporate a course of action into your emergency response plans, if necessary.
Keeping your plan current is a critical part of emergency planning. This emergency preparedness checklist is meant to guide you in creating or updating a comprehensive system for prevention, preparation, response, and recovery. Pulling together a diverse team with varied experiences and perspectives makes your plan well rounded and gives you the best chance of creating responses that will serve the needs of all students and staff. It will also create a prioritized list of threats and hazards that is meaningful to the entire school population.
Once the right team is in place, the key is to use all the tools and resources at your disposal to develop systems that address threats realistically and improve on existing plans when needed. New solutions and technologies can significantly improve your preparedness plans, and some technologies, like attendance and behavioral tracking software, smart cards, and visitor management systems, can enhance your response plans for multiple threats. Each of these systems is designed not only to help administrators prevent emergencies but also to better manage the chaos during and following an event.
With an updated and relevant plan in place, you and your team will have a framework for evaluating the effectiveness of your responses, as well as the usefulness of new solutions in a holistic manner.
The ScholarChip team is dedicated to helping schools keep their students and staff safe and accounted for. We believe the best way to react to an emergency is to have a solid plan in place before it arises.
To learn more about improving your school safety plan for years to come, schedule a 1-on-1 walkthrough session with one of our specialists today!