TASB Risk Management Fund

Plan, Train, Exercise Your Way to Better Emergency Response

August 13, 2020 Melanie Moss

The rapidly evolving pandemic underscores the importance of planning for a variety of scenarios. Exercises are a critical part of the planning process because they help schools identify vulnerabilities, address prevention and mitigation strategies, practice response procedures, and isolate resources needed for recovery.

The Texas Education Agency recommends that all districts hold tabletop exercises before school starts. During these discussion-based sessions, districts can apply their COVID-19 response plan to a range of scenarios.

Core elements of preparedness

The National Incident Management Systems defines preparedness as a cycle of planning, training, exercising, evaluating, and developing corrective action plans to ensure an effective incident response. Much of the work related to evaluating the plan and developing corrective action plans is done during the exercise after-action phase.


As schools develop plans to continue their educational mission, they need to clarify roles and responsibilities, build effective relationships with public health and other community partners, assess resources and capabilities, and promote community preparedness. To ensure these plans meet the needs of schools and the communities they serve, school officials must run discussion-based activities such as tabletop exercises.


Districts should provide training on COVID-19 and other health emergency plans and procedures, including the incident command system, to ensure that staff understand  expectations and strategies prior to performing exercises.


Tabletop exercises allow participants to familiarize themselves with plans, policies, and procedures through hypothetical scenarios in an informal setting. These exercises are used to assess plans, outline roles and responsibilities, identify strengths and weaknesses, and improve plans to better support the response process.

To ensure public health and medical objectives are met through a tabletop exercise, schools must include local public health and medical partners who can observe and/or participate in the process. You should also include safety and security committee members, as well as those with roles and responsibilities pertaining to the response to COVID-19 or other health-based incidents.

Tabletop exercises should follow district procedures and be realistic. Focus on warning and notification procedures for an event such as COVID-19 exposure, as well as mitigation strategies that incorporate students, staff, and visitors.

Though the possible scenarios are endless, a successful exercise scenario uses a model that is specific, measurable, realistic, and meets the time constraints. Schools may choose to conduct a short scenario with one part or a longer scenario that covers several parts.

When developing an exercise, schools may want to ask these questions:

  • What are the goals of the exercise? For example, do you want to test your communication or incident notification procedures?
  • Can exercise goals be measured? If so, how?
  • Can you complete the scenario in the time allotted?
  • Is the scenario realistic and relevant to the plan?
  • Is the scenario timely to the current planning cycle?

A COVID-19 or other pandemic emergency exercise should consider these concepts:

  • Symptom identification
  • Screening of students, faculty, and staff
  • Case investigation
  • Contact tracing

Case studies

For each scenario below, schools should discuss the action to be taken and who is responsible for those actions based on the school’s plan.

Short scenario

The school was notified by a parent that a student tested positive for COVID-19. The student was pre-symptomatic during their last day on campus.

Questions you may ask:

  • What are the immediate concerns?
  • What initial actions should the school take based on the plan?
  • What internal and external communication should be released?
  • How do the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) factor in? When should legal counsel be included?
  • What is the school’s role in reporting communicable disease? How does the reporting process progress?
  • What sanitation is needed, and who takes the lead?

Longer scenario

Part 1. A staff member presents with persistent cough for several days. On the third day, he stops by the nurse’s office for a cough drop. She gives him a cough drop and checks his temperature. The staff member is running a fever that was not present earlier that day. The school nurse recommends he get tested for COVID-19 and seek treatment from his primary care physician.

Questions you may ask:

  • What steps should the school nurse take?
  • What initial action should the school take based on the plan?
  • What steps, if any, will be taken to support the staff member?
  • What does the incident command system look like for this incident?
  • What key actions should staff take?
  • What other actions should staff and students take?

Part 2. The staff member’s health deteriorates quickly. He ends up in the hospital, where he tests positive for COVID-19. The school is notified through the rumor mill about the staff member’s condition.

Questions you may ask:

  • What are your next steps based on the plan?
  • How do you verify the diagnosis without violating HIPAA?
  • What key actions should staff take?

Part 3. The district verifies the diagnosis.

Questions you may ask:

  • What are the immediate concerns?
  • What actions should the school take based on the plan?
  • What internal and external communication should be released? How do HIPAA and FERPA factor in?
  • What is the school’s role in reporting communicable disease? How does the reporting process progress?
  • What sanitation is needed, and who takes the lead?

After action

After each exercise and drill, participants should participate in an after-action review and debrief. This allows individuals to discuss the following aspects of the exercise:

  • Positives. What went well during the exercise?
  • Objections. What did not go well?
  • What else? What was left out of the exercise, and did other areas of concern arise?
  • Enhancements.  What can we do better in future exercises?
  • Remedies. What can we do to improve the plan? Who is responsible for vetting and making plan updates? What is the timeline for doing so?

The information gathered during the after-action review should be compiled into an Incident Action Plan and used to improve the district all-hazards emergency operations plan, as well as the public health and medical annex.

Get additional support

The Texas Education Agency released guidance for public health operations, planning, and exercise in their Guidebook for Public Health Operations. The Fund has been helping schools stay safe for decades. To receive a customizable EOP template and personalized help developing an emergency response process, members of the Fund’s Auto, Liability, Property, or Workers' Compensation programs can contact Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss.

Tagged: "emergency management", Safety