Have you conducted a reunification drill lately?
As K-12 school officials, we spend ample time on various safety drills. Lockdown, fire and severe weather drills all dot the administrative calendar. That said, when is the last time your district conducted a reunification drill? Emphasis on reunification procedures has been added in recent years following national school tragedies.
The ability to effectively reunite students and loved ones is important. But scrutiny after emergencies tends to move from how incidents are handled in the heat of the moment to how they are handled after students and staff are no longer in harm’s way.
The ability to effectively reunite students and loved ones is important.
Having a plan on paper is a great initial step. Practicing an actionable reunification process is a more complex undertaking. The need for the practicing of reunification drills was hastened in my district after one of our oldest schools was thought to have a gas leak last year, and students and staff were forced to exit the building. A gas leak was eventually ruled out, and school resumed that day. Had it not, though, our district would have been pressed into relocating and reunifying roughly 300 students. It was in that moment that I knew we must put our reunification plan into action.
Prepping for reunification
I am fortunate to work with an incredible group of administrators, and we set forth in refining our plan. One assistant principal was brave enough to practice the first reunification drill. And another one of our schools practiced the drill with a larger group of students. From those experiences, and several others, I have identified four factors that can be addressed on the front end to ensure drill success.
- Choose a reunification location. Make sure it is far enough away from your campus that it will not be overrun with emergency vehicles. Attempting to reunify too close to campus may overlap with a mobile command center and/or emergency vehicles and personnel. In addition, your reunification location should have easy access to restrooms, be easy to locate for parents or guardians, and have ample room for your school nurse to assist students requiring medical attention.
- Test your communication tools. When conducting a drill, use the same communication process you would during an actual emergency. Since this is a drill, notify the recipients beforehand that they will be receiving a call, text or e-mail, for instance, but their students will not be in harm’s way. This is important to ensure communication methods are working properly. If your school uses walkie-talkies, bring them with you to make sure they work inside the reunification area.
Choose your participants carefully. It is paramount that the adults on your campus understand the reunification process. If you do choose to incorporate some students, make sure they are students with whom you have good relationships with their parents or guardians. As this drill is outside what is traditionally practiced, you do not want the added stress of a poor experience.
- Contact all stakeholders. Communicating your drill beforehand to all stakeholders is important to avoid unnecessary panic. If you will be using a school bus to transport staff and students—and this is recommended—make sure your transportation department is familiar with the number of passengers and the location of your reunification site. Communicating your drill to district administration and your public relations specialist is important as well to mitigate any questions local media may have. One of our schools that conducted a reunification drill also provided a detailed laminated schedule for teachers so they would know what steps of the reunification process were happening at what times.
Reunification is all about safely transporting students and staff to an alternate location where they can be brought together with their loved ones. We cannot be expected to execute what we do not practice, and the time to practice reunification is well before it is actually needed.
Chris Hardman is the safety coordinator for Auburn City Schools in Alabama and a member of the state’s School Safety Task Force.