Safe Schools: Keeping students, faculty secure during pandemic

The start of the academic year has presented a number of challenges, but schools have done well in maintaining security protocols

Safe Schools Week is here, and there have been few more complex times to remain hazard-free and violence-free, than in 2020.

Yet K-12 schools across the board are doing well with safety and security measures, especially in their communication and planning, according to experts from the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS).

“There’s good mitigation taking place right now, good cleanup and good things going on,” said Guy Grace, chairman of the advisory committee for PASS and a former director of security and emergency planning for Littleton (Colo.) Public Schools. “I see afterschool activities still taking place. I see a lot of school districts trying to maintain normalcy as much as possible for our kids. I think that’s very impressive. They’re unsung heroes.”

Grace and fellow security expert Paul Timm of Facility Engineering Associates discussed how well those safety procedures are working in schools as well as strategies to improve existing ones during a virtual session last week with security solutions provider Allegion.

So far, they like what they see, impressed by school staff responses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grace points to an early statistic – the overall COVID infection rate for students is at less than 1% – to show just how strong the efforts have been. And that’s been key to maintaining overall security within districts. He says the flexibility, transparency and collaborative work of faculty and staff, along with their past experiences in handling crises, are keeping schools safe.

“Schools have been mitigating emergencies for many, many years,” Grace says. “We have done it with the incident command, emergency protocols. And we have planned for past pandemics [citing the Swine Flu outbreak]. The reason why schools have been really good about what they’ve been doing is because they were prepared for other emergencies.”

Safety first, staying vigilant

Safe Schools Week has been around since 1984, and many of the initiatives and guidance launched by the National School Safety Center have always centered on the violence and crime that can and do occur on campuses. Over the past nine years, since the Sandy Hook shooting, there have been more than 200 school shootings. Vigilance to end the violence has been a cornerstone of the movement. One of the resulting mantras from Sandy Hook has been “See Something, Say Something,” a message echoed by these experts.

The overall goals of Safe Schools Week are to promote awareness around safety and security, share best practices and information, and strive to curb violence and drugs in schools. This year, COVID-19 has added an unexpected wrinkle to the national effort.

Because of the many protocols that have had to be enforced when coronavirus struck in March, it has left the door open – literally – to potential serious consequences.

Timm mentioned a seemingly harmless moment outside a school where a volleyball match was happening. A door had been propped open with a chair to allow for better circulation in the building.

“I said, look at that,” Timm recalls. “We’re back in school, and people have forgotten about some basic security practices. Nobody was there monitoring the door. So, someone who looks like a student or parent could have slipped in. The amount of benefit they’re getting from a circulation standpoint is very minimal. The amount of vulnerability they’ve introduced from having that unmonitored door propped open is significant.”

The lesson to school administrators and staff: don’t let COVID-19 protocols get in the way of security measures that are necessary, unless the Centers for Disease Control or authorities mandate them. Even then, consider how those implementations might affect your school. Try where possible not to do safety measures on the cheap, such as retrofitting security devices, says Lori Greene, codes and resources manager at Allegion.

“The immediate need to address classroom security — often within tight budgetary constraints — can sometimes lead to rushed decisions that do not comply with current building codes, fire codes and accessibility standards,” she says.

Leaning on guidance, resources

As with the implementation of all safety and security measures, Grace says it is critical for schools to work with partners and their local health departments. They likely will help in determining next steps and guidance for schools during the pandemic.

He says three things must be maintained through any security plan … and believes all of them can apply to the COVID crisis, as well:

  1. Emergency preparedness
  2. Physical security
  3. Mental health components

“But I want to point out, you have to apply these things very holistically,” Grace said. “Because if you don’t, you could create more of a fear factor, just like we do in an active threat mitigation, by putting in technologies or components that don’t enhance safety. Or they might enhance the safety but make the kids and the staff and the parents feel worse than the benefit they bring. It’s about applying these things to make our schools a place that kids want to be in and staff want to be teaching in.”

One of the keys in keeping schools safe is ensuring there are monies available to provide proper staff, training and updated technology, especially as budgets continue to tighten. School districts looking for help in beefing up their safety efforts can look to programs and grants from the U.S. Department of Education, which were provided by Allegion and Dr. Paula Love, an expert in funding who took part in the session:

  • IDEA: The individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act Program
  • Title I, Part A: Improving Basic Programs
  • Title IV, Part A: Student Support and Academic Enrichment Program (SSAE) Competitive funds Yearly competitions; schools compete to get some of the funds
  • STOP School Violence program issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)
  • School Violence Protection Program (SVPP) by U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Emergency relief funding to address the impact of COVID-19: Cares Act funding (issued by the US government in response to the COVID-19 emergency)
  • CARES Act: Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF)
  • CARES Act: Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund

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