Make preparing special education students for an emergency a priority. Emergencies happen and sometimes they are so unpredictable that they can (and do!) happen while school is still in session.
These days, teachers often already have emergency go bags for things like fire drills, but preparing special education students for an emergency goes beyond a fire drill go bag. Don’t have one yet for your classroom? Learn how to make one here!
I’ve lived in the Houston area for over a decade now. In that time frame, I’ve evacuated my home because of wildfires, I’ve been stuck at home for a week from Hurricane Harvey, seen my old apartment building on TV from historic flooding, and have now just gone through the awful ice storm. The last school I taught at even had students stranded at school overnight due to flooding, though I wasn’t teaching there at the time. My very first year teaching, my school had a real lockdown situation with someone with a gun outside the school. Thankfully, that situation turned out OK.
But that’s just my personal experience. Beyond myself, a first responder friend had to help in the West, Texas explosion a few years ago. Just this morning I learned about a train explosion in Cameron, Texas, where a different teacher friend of mine used to live and teach. That explosion caused evacuations due to health concerns. While I don’t want to cause you panic or even more anxiety, we do need to plan for more emergencies to come.
Houston specifically and Texas in general have had a ton of disasters. Learn from us. They can happen anywhere. I want your special education students to be well prepared in case of an emergency.
Assess Your Likely Threats
The first step in being prepared is to consider what types of threats are likely in your area. What natural disasters are likely in your town? While unlikely events can certainly occur, it is better to start your preparations with more likely scenarios.
Is your school near areas that flood in heavy rain? Don’t just think about the school, think about how the school is accessed via roads. Can busses come and go safely or will the roads be under water? The school I taught at that had students and staff stuck in a flood was fairly rural so there weren’t a ton of roads in and out. While the school was on high ground, the surrounding roads were not, turning the school grounds into an island. Unfortunately, that meant some students and staff were stranded overnight. How would you make your kids feel safe if the power was out, and they couldn’t go home? For so many of our students, routine is critically important, but emergencies are anything but routine.
In 2011, I got a phone call I’ll never forget. It was the weekend, and I was watching Walk the Line. Just a normal, relaxing day. A friend called and immediately asked if I was OK. I said yes, but asked her why. While I had been watching a movie, a wildfire had started near my home. I immediately started packing up important items to my car so I could leave if needed. The air outside was already smokey. Soon, I was at the very edge of the mandatory evacuation zone, so I left to stay at a friends for a week with my cats.
If I had happened to be closer the wildfire, I could have lost everything very, very quickly. While often there is some notice of a spreading wildfire coming your way, if your school happens to be nearby a breakout of a wildfire, that’s going to be a big problem. Does your school have a plan to evacuate quickly with buses? It’s not remotely the same situation as a normal fire drill.
Extreme Cold and Ice Storms
I’m a Texas girl, but my parents are from South Dakota, so I’m no stranger to cold. Spring Break to me meant visiting my grandma and playing in snowdrifts, not sunny beaches. If you live somewhere where cold temperatures are possible, does your school have a backup plan for heat? If kids are stranded there and cold overnight, do you have a way to keep kids warm? Mylar blankets are relatively inexpensive and small to store. Nobody in Houston would have guessed that we would have such an extended cold snap at the same time as a power outage. It was not good to experience. People died from cold exposure. Thankfully the schools in my area closed well before the storm, but if they had been wrong in their prediction, it could have been even worse.
Climate change is creating new hazards in areas that didn’t previously experience them and making disasters more frequent. This isn’t just a future problem, climate change is here and impacting us right now. Learn from local natural disasters but consider the possibility that your area may experience new or unusual threats as well. Part of our disaster planning should be disaster prevention. We can teach our students to contact their representatives to prevent and prepare for disasters.
Explosions happen more than we like to think about. They can happen from improper chemical storage, train wrecks, or other industrial incidents like the explosion in Houston a little over a year ago. With these kind of events, you may need to evacuate or shelter in place. Depending on the materials available, having masks available to students to help filter the air could be wise. Even post-covid, it may make sense to have masks on hand for students and staff, just in case.
Do you take a bridge to get to and from school? A tunnel? A road that could be washed out? In 2007, the I-35 Mississippi River bridge collapsed. Almost 9% of US bridges are “structurally deficient,” and our infrastructure all too often isn’t being repaired. Take a look at a map of the area surrounding your school. How many ways in and out are there? Has the transportation department of your district looked at this issue? And are they prepared with enough accessible buses to help students with wheelchairs or other students with IEPs requiring accommodations in transportation?
While your school nurse(if your school is even lucky enough to still have one full time) should be able to handle many injuries, it’s a good idea to have first aid knowledge yourself. Ask around and find out what first aid materials are available at your school and get trained in first aid. I recommend you have some tourniquets at your school. While it sounds dramatic and conjures up images of school shootings (which of course is a horrific possibility in this day and age), tourniquets are more often going to be needed for freak playground accidents causing open fractures, also called compound fractures to stop bleeding before EMS can arrive.
Heart health is near and dear to me. Both my parents lost their fathers to heart attacks, and I lost my childhood second dad to a heart attack too. If your school doesn’t have at least one defibrillator, it should. I’d love to see one in every front office/nurse clinic and also in every gym and sports field house. Minutes and seconds matter in a cardiac emergency. When I was in college, I was a member of Texas A&M’s Circle K International. We would do defibrillator demonstrations and CPR demonstrations outside of Kyle Field on game day to raise money for defibrillators for schools. Do you have a Key Club, Builders Club, or other civic service organization that could help raise funds for this important gear if your district can’t provide it?
We already know our students can’t Bloom without Maslow. When planning for an emergency at school, we need to consider his hierarchy too. We need to think about our students basic needs first. We need to consider how we will meet these needs in an emergency.
I’ve heard it said that nobody has special needs. We all have the same human needs, and some of us just need accomodations to make that happen. This is a really helpful mindset to consider in how to prepare for an emergency situation with our students who need accommodations to get their basic needs met. You should consider all activities of daily living, even ones that are normally handled at home. Not only will this help you plan for emergencies, but this exercise can help you think about how to increase student independence for future.
Rule of Threes
Maslow’s Hierarchy meshes well with the Rule of Threes. The rule of three is a way to help remember basic survival needs and how much time you have for each need.
- Air: 3 Minutes-A person can survive without air for about three minutes.
- Shelter: 3 Hours- A person can survive harsh conditions without proper shelter
- Water: 3 Days-A person can survive without water for about three days.
- Food: 3 Weeks-A person can survive without food for about three weeks.
These generalizations may be different for students with certain disabilities.
Do you have a student who has an electricity powered device to help deliver oxygen? If so, how will you keep them going without electricity? Alternatively, consider a student with cystic fibrosis. At home (and perhaps at school too), kids with cystic fibrosis have medical devices that help clear their lungs. If a student can’t go home, how will staff make sure the child can breathe?
Shelter and Temperature
Do you have students who have difficulty regulating their body temperature? Without power, how do you intend to keep these kids warm or cool, depending on the situation? For students who aren’t able to regulate their body temperature, the three hour rule above could be far less. Have a plan that can be implemented quickly. Body temperature isn’t just a matter of comfort; in extreme weather, it is life and death. Even students with no medical issues will need to be able to stay warm enough and cool enough in an emergency.
Food and Water
Do you have a student who accesses food and water through a feeding tube? How about a student who gets their food prepared with a blender? If you are without power, how are you going to provide for these needs? While the rule of threes may give you more time to handle food and water than air and temperature/shelter needs, for some of our students, their bodies could be in an emergency state far before three days without water or three weeks without food.
The rule of threes promoted by survivalists doesn’t take medications into account, but it should. Some medicines need to be administered very regularly for survival.
Some medicine needs to be kept cold. If this applies, do you have a way to keep the medicine cold even in an outage? Sometimes our students may have medicine they take before an after school on a 12 hour rotation. Some students may need insulin. The types of medication needs are extremely varied. Get a plan for emergency storage, administration, and even evacuation if you can. If you have multiple students needing refrigerated medications, remember opening up the fridge in a power outage will warm up the inside more rapidly.
Remember, some students who need medicine may not specifically fall under the special education umbrella, but they shouldn’t be left out of planning. Also, if you have to evacuate the student body, how are medications being evacuated safely with kids?
Our kids thrive on routine and predictability, but emergencies don’t lend themselves to that. If you can, in an emergency situation where students are staying after hours, try to have be near staff members they are most comfortable with, while being fully and discretely included. Make the situation as pleasant and fun as possible. It’s not the time to knock out extra academics.
Kids stranded at school miss their families. They might be afraid of the dark. The weather could product scary noises. Everywhere students and staff will be should have some emergency lighting. After dark, you can’t rely on sunlight. Have lanterns for general lighting. I use headlamps for camping. They are hands free and very helpful too. Enough battery operated light helps everybody feel a little more secure.
Stuffed animals and fun sensory toys can be helpful to have on hand in an emergency. In an emergency, it’s OK to bust out the preferred activities. Make it a point to know your students preferred activities that don’t rely on technology. Not only will this help students stay entertained in an emergency, it can help in day to day classroom management too.
If possible, have an idea of your students routine at home after they get home from school. Is there anything you could easily recreate in their home routine to keep them at least closer to their routine in an emergency?
Group Activities and Inclusion
In an emergency I believe special education students should still be included to the greatest extent possible that is their LRE. In a situation with stranded kids, large groups of kids can congregate in the cafeteria or gym. What kinds of activities will your school plan for such an event? Ideally these activities should be easily to modify and allow for all students to feel successful and calm. The point here is comfort and entertainment, not academics! Preparing special education students for an emergency means preparing to have them fully included with same age peers.
I assure you kids are learning during an emergency, and some of those lessons are going to be more important than a bit of academic review would be. They are learning from how you and other staff members react. They are learning about community and teamwork. Even in an emergency, you are still modeling as a teacher.
The internet could go down in an emergency, landlines, cell phones, or a combination of those. Don’t have your emergency plans and records in a digital only format. You’ll be so glad you have a physical copy if you need it.
Besides teaching, I’ve also worked in the data center industry, which included disaster recovery. In that job, I toured school district owned data centers flooded out. All those grades entered down the drain. If you can, keep a fairly recent record of the grades you’ve entered printed out. While I don’t love printing things unnecessarily, you’ll be really, really glad to not completely loose that work if your district looses their records. It can and does happen. Also, you won’t want to rely on electronic copies of an IEP if the internet is down. Have a way to access it manually as a backup. Just make sure you store it properly to protect privacy.
If possible, have a way for students to communicate with their family during an emergency. It may mean using your own cell phone. That little bit of home and comfort can be a big help to our kids hearts. It won’t always be possible if communication lines are down, but sometimes it can be done. Make sure you have ways to access phone numbers that are not only digital. A charged phone bank allows students (and you) to make calls and keep communication open for a bit longer.
Preparing for a School Emergency
Preparing specifically for special education students in emergency situations is absolutely vital. It can save lives. No school is invulnerable to an emergency. While it isn’t easy to think about, you will feel a sense of peace once you have prepared.