Closing schools because of an emergency is a serious decision. The more impactful the emergency and the longer the closure is expected to last, the more factors schools must consider.
Emergency operations plans (EOP), along with supporting continuity of operations plans (COOP), provide a good starting point for schools to remain flexible and viable in any circumstance. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are experiencing teachable moments as they adapt to new challenges while carrying out their missions to serve students.
COOP: A framework for continuity
Some functions are essential to the business of operating a district. Your COOP provides a framework for ensuring continuity of functions such as paying bills, issuing payroll and letters of reasonable assurance, responding to unemployment claims, making emergency purchases, and securing closed facilities. As vital members of your communities, districts are also called on to deliver services that meet the neighborhood’s needs during the pandemic. For example, schools have hosted COVID-19 testing sites.
As you build on or expand your COOP, these principles should apply across operations:
Strong COOPs are built on clear, timely communication of services, expectations, and support systems. Your processes will likely change as the pandemic continues to unfold. Use district websites, email, and emergency notification systems to keep stakeholders up to date.
Student and staff needs will change along with the pandemic. Schools should continue to evaluate and address the physical and emotional impact of extended school closure, hybrid instruction, or online learning. Include the input of individuals who are experiencing personal hardships due to COVID-19, as well as students who fear lost educational standing or program access. If your district is delivering meals to students’ homes or designated pickup sites beyond school property, consider assigning counselors or other key faculty members to the team to monitor at-risk students.
Health officials advise that everyone maintain a minimum six feet of separation to avoid coronavirus transmission. Whether you have students in your buildings or staff reaching out to your community, make sure your processes provide written guidance on social distancing.
Gloves and masks provide a layer of protection when employees interact with parents and students. Remember, though, that protective equipment should be a supplement to, not a substitute for, social distancing and other protective measures.
You should continue to screen staff for illness, not only to protect them, but also any parents and students they may interact with.
Continuity of nutritional services
Many schools provide students with meals through state and federal programs. Some families rely on these programs for vital nutrition their children might not otherwise receive. If your district is operating under a hybrid or online-only model, you can still provide ongoing meal services. The Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Operations, which first rolled out in March during initial school closures, will continue through the end of this year so you can continue to feed your students.
Pick up or drop off?
To support district continuity during the COVID-19 response, the Texas Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Agriculture issued meal distribution guidance. Many schools deliver meals or set up distribution points where parents can retrieve food for their student. Distribution point options include drive-throughs where families remain in their vehicles, pickup locations that allow families to walk in, and zero-contact pickup sites. Schools should identify backup personnel for staff who prepare and distribute meals.
Mutual aid agreements
School districts with limited delivery resources have opted for mutual aid partnerships with key volunteer organizations that can support meal preparation and delivery. Examples include Meals on Wheels and the Salvation Army. The district’s EOP includes guidance for establishing mutual aid agreements. When developing or using mutual aid agreements, districts should reach out to their legal counsel.
Funding and expense reimbursement
Expenses not already covered by other federal funding services may be covered through the FEMA public assistance program or other local, state, and federal programs. Below are some tips to keep track of your expenses during this time and stay updated on resources:
- Document all costs, including supplies, labor, overtime pay, and use of district resources, such as school buses, for food distribution.
- Keep records of all expenditures related to the COVID-19 response, including but not limited to personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, sanitation, and mitigation strategies.
- Continue to review state and federal eligibility requirements, as well as student needs for meals, and revise or expand services accordingly. If local resources become depleted or are insufficient, a State of Texas Assistance Request may be routed to the assigned Disaster District through the STAR process.
Schools have developed programs for educational continuity so students who cannot regularly attend classes still have learning opportunities. These programs support individual students affected by illness or restrictions that limit their ability to attend or thrive at school. Continuity of education is part of a larger mission schools play in the lives of students and communities they serve. These same strategies are being used as districts continue instructional continuity throughout the COVID-19 response.
Some schools have opted for a hybrid model of instruction, which gives students the option to take classes online at home or in-person on campus. In-person instruction can be a good choice for special needs students or students without reliable internet access. It provides the necessary in-class framework to ensure a more successful learning experience for these student populations.
If you offer in-person instruction or on-campus activities, ensure that you follow your area’s public health guidelines. This can include maintaining social distance, consistent sanitization, and wearing masks. Be sure to follow the TEA’s public health and administrative guidelines for remote and on-campus learning options
Other schools have opted for completely online instruction since the start of the pandemic. Electronic continuity of education is dependent on technology. It is important to ensure staff and students understand that no sensitive information should be shared when connected to unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Districts should continue to guide students and teachers on how to access learning platforms, and they should require regular password updates. With an increase in virtual meetings, it is crucial to take steps to keep these meetings secure.
School administrators are responsible for determining processes for grading and monitoring student progress. As remote education continues, those processes should be regularly monitored and updated as needed. Curriculum should center on resources that can be accessed online or through resources families have at home.
Technology staff must continue to assess student, faculty, and staff internet access and device capabilities, as needs may change, such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), as well as cybersecurity. Student learning will not necessarily take place during regular school or business hours, so technology should support online access 24 hours per day.
Some families do not have home internet access. If your district is focusing on remote learning, you can support these families by developing and distributing paper packets. You also have the option to use Texas Home Learning, a TEA-developed curriculum and distribution system.
As with electronic educational continuity, districts can create regular schedules for development and distribution of packets and hard-copy educational materials. This should include guidance for teachers on developing and grading packet materials, including timely feedback to students. Schools communicate procedures and expectations to students and faculty. They also establish a system for distribution, pickup, and return of completed materials, which should comply with public health requirements regarding social distance, health monitoring, and protective measures.
Regardless of whether districts choose hybrid instruction, online learning, packet distribution, or a combination, they must support students who have special needs. That includes students who have language barriers or who need remedial assistance. Key faculty, tutors, and curriculum specialists must be available to evolve educational outreach to meet the needs of at-risk students.
How the Fund can help
The Fund is here to support our members and help them prepare for, respond to, and recover from natural disasters, school violence, public health emergencies, and other crisis situations. For more information, contact Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss at 512.505.2868 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in April 2020. It has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.