By Kevin Kupietz, Faculty Member, Emergency and Disaster Management
What child does not wake up with amazement and joy at a freshly covered yard of snow? After all, that means a “Snow Day,” an unplanned day – or days – of excused absence from school. No additional homework, extra time to get last night’s homework completed, a day of fun in the snow with no worries or concerns.
While this sounds good to the inner child in everyone, these unexpected closures come with a price in the real world. Students fall behind educationally; extra days must be added to school schedules; teachers, staff, and parents are inconvenienced; the list goes on.
In the world of emergency management, talk of business resiliency and continuity has been a central theme through snow and all disasters, yet this concept has not been pushed in education. Schools are responsible for the country’s most valuable asset, the children who will be expected to compete and flourish in a world economy to maintain America’s pre-eminent standing.
How to Build Strong Educational Continuity Across the Country
While a single snow day may not be that big a deal, what happens when longer-term disasters strike, leaving children home for days or weeks? There needs to be a higher level of educational continuity across the country. There needs to be scheduled “learn at home” day(s) to prepare students, teaching staff and parents for instances when traditional classes are not be held for whatever reason.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many of the shortcomings of traditional mindsets, but maybe in no area greater than that of education. Schools around the world struggled to move from traditional classroom learning to alternative methods of instruction, affecting more than 1.6 billion students equating to 94% of the world’s learners. A year-long snow day.
This surprise data caused many problems. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau has suggested that more than 10% of U.S. students had little to no access to the technology needed to switch to remote learning during the pandemic. This represented just one of many unrecognized problems of the educational switch causing inefficient reactions to the disaster and a loss of learning.
Rebecca Winthrop, co-director of the Center for Universal Education and Senior Fellow Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institute, cites other problems with COVID transition to alternative learning. They include teachers not prepared to make the switch to online learning and many of the students, especially those of a lower socioeconomic status, were not prepared with the proper tools or technical instruction, which only widened the inequities of education.
Technology shortfalls were quickly found in areas such as rural internet access as well as the inability for parents and other caregivers to help students with technology issues. All this showed a need for better preparedness to make quick, seamless transitions when those involved are already under the extra stress of the disaster or other event at hand. The pandemic has been potentially the longest, but certainly not the first long-term “snow day.”
If we do not make changes in how disasters are handled from an educational continuity standpoint, this current strange interlude will not be the last. These school closures have strong and lasting effects. For example, the inefficient change to alternative education during the COVID-19 crisis will likely cause an increased loss of learning, higher dropout rates, educational deficiencies in graduates followed by economic ramifications.
While many might say that the long-term school closures were unforeseen, this might be a bit of an exaggeration. There have been warnings in many different instances when school systems were out for extended amounts of time. Probably the best known was Hurricane Katrina when children generally were out of school for three to five weeks. Subsequent research has highlighted the setbacks these students experienced as well as the increased gap in educational inequality.
There are other lesser known events such as the 29-day shutdown of the Pender County, North Carolina, school system following Hurricane Florence in 2018. This was not an isolated event. Nearly 600 North Carolina schools closed for a week or more because of the storm.
From 2015 to 2019, 70 California schools missed 15 days of school due to wildfires while many others missed fewer days. Up until the advent of the pandemic in January 2020, wildfires were the major cause of school closures in California.
If the nation’s educational system missed the past wakeup calls for educational continuity, maybe the recent pandemic could serve as that calling. Harvard Gazette staff writer Liz Mineo reminds us of the lesson learned from the pandemic, that it is good for educational institutions to have backup plans. For example, schools in the Northeast and Midwest have alternative learning plans for severe winter weather. As a result of the pandemic, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has included five required remote learning days in the system’s 2020-21 school calendar.
A UN Report this year notes that the pandemic has generated many great feats of creativity and ingenuity in the educational field, providing hope that even better can be achieved. Emiliana Vegas and Rebecca Winthrop go so far as to argue that, because society is more aware of and paying more attention to education during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the time to build a stronger education system.
Part of an organization’s strength is its resiliency. Part of resiliency means that the organization must value the change and continue its belief in the need for mitigation and preparedness for future such events. Thus, school systems cannot merely hope or even plan, but they must prepare, practice, and integrate lessons learned from past practice and real world events.
Conduct Regular “Learn at Home” Days to Test System
The federal government and other organizations for years have conducted work at home days to test employees’ abilities to conduct their core missions and tasks if they were unable to make it into their normal work site due to a disaster or other event. School “learn from home” days would work similarly. They would run like a scheduled fire drill, where the school system would set aside a day or several in the year to exercise the system’s ability to continue the core functions away from the campus with minimal disruptions.
One example might be for school systems to use the National Preparedness Month of September to schedule a learn from home day. On that day students, faculty, and staff would all work remotely according to the system’s plan to meet the core mission. While participating in the drill, one part of the daily assignment would be for students, staff, and faculty to hand in a written report on what worked well and what did not. Leadership could collate and analyze the data looking for strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement. School administrations could then do short- and long-term planning to make remote learning during snow or disaster days more efficient. The revised plan would be regularly communicated with everyone. Better dissemination and future complications could be anticipated and handled in good time.
The UN Recommendations for Educational Policy calls for building stronger and more resilient educational systems with more attention paid to risk management. This makes perfect sense as the educational system is a primary tool for the advancement of society. Educational organizations are not isolated entities, they are a prominent part of their communities. Strong schools are important to both the short- and long-term recovery operations of a community. In the emergency management world, a plan is all right, but a tested and practiced plan is better. The successful school system will be a community partner to help prepare for and become stronger after a natural disaster.
Be an ally to your community’s educational organizations. Advocate for your local school system to create a “Snow Day” plan and to practice it on a regular schedule. Just like Fire Prevention Week and others, let us all join to advocate for a National Learn from Home Day to test and improve our abilities to educate regardless of what disaster or event befalls the system.
About the Author: Kevin Kupietz, Ph.D., is a firefighter and paramedic by trade with more than 20 years of experience. He has taught in traditional classrooms as well as in online formats for more than 15 years. He is an adjunct faculty for the graduate program of Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University. He currently is a full-time emergency management faculty member at Elizabeth City State University (ECSU). He also serves with the Roanoke Rapids (NC) Fire Department, RRT1 hazmat team and NC1 DMAT. He received his Ph.D. in human services, MS in occupational safety, and BS in fire engineering. In addition, he is an Executive Fire Officer (EFO) graduate.