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GAO: Schools Not Well Prepared for Emergencies


Schools struggle to prioritize contingency & post-recovery planning

Tornadoes, fires, hurricanes, active shooters, and other natural and human caused risks impact schools across the nation every year. Planning and preparedness is the key to an efficient response and rapid recovery, but a recent government report found that half of the nation's schools do not have plans in place for post-incident recovery, nor are they engaged in contingency planning should the facility be deemed unusable, or destroyed.

Robust emergency plans needed

Incidents at U.S. schools over the past several years, including tornadoes and shootings, strongly highlight the need for them to have robust emergency plans in order to protect the country's 50 million students in public schools.  

A report recently released by the U. S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicated that even though most school districts practiced and updated their plans, balancing emergency planning and other higher priorities posed a difficult challenge to more than half the nation's schools.

Federal guidance

Several federal agencies support K-12 schools, including the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security, through funding, training, and technical assistance. Guidance released in a 2013 publication, Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans, was based on a presidential plan to coordinate efforts across agencies.

Piecemeal approaches, lack of coordination

Since the release of the guide, a piecemeal approach has occurred, indicating that collaborative efforts are not being shared among all groups or stakeholders, and interpretations of federal guidance differs across agencies. This can increase the risk of duplication, overlapping, or fragmented efforts, which can result in wasted federal resources.

The report pointed to a lack of coordination and cooperation between state and local agencies, as only half the districts reportedly conduct drills and emergency exercises with local first responders (fire department, police), even though majority of schools engage in these drills and exercises.

Major gap in planning

The largest gap found was in planning for continuity of operations and post-incident recovery. Half of the schools were reportedly deficient in this area.

Recovery post-incident is imperative to returning the community to its normal state as quickly as possible. Having a plan in place that helps schools resume normal operations as quickly as possible helps minimize the impact of the hazard, helping build resilience, while speeding the recovery process.

Continuing to develop plans individually will hamper school assistance, the GAO report noted, but better planning, coordination, integration, and cooperation would lead to a more efficient response and recovery across all agencies and groups. The report also strongly advised federal agencies to engage more fully in planning and preparedness efforts to benefit schools, protect students, and speed incident recovery

Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.