A New Era of School Safety

 In Administrator Resources, Advocacy, Climate, Districts, Leadership Development, Professional Development Opportunities

By Stephen Balko Director of School Building Physical Security and Safety, Indiana Department of Education

Virtual learning. Personal protective equipment. Social distancing.

A year ago, these were terms we knew, but they weren’t part of educators’ daily vocabulary.  But now, a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we understand how these critical elements are directly intertwined with school safety.

And just as many of us have adjusted our lives in the last year, it’s also critical that we adjust the ways we look at safety in our schools – whether that’s through virtual, hybrid or in-person instruction. As schools come through the pandemic, it will be important to focus on what was learned, and what should remain in our world. 

When it comes to digital learning, for example, what new threats come into the picture? How do we control access to a virtual classroom? And what about student privacy?

As education embraces a more digital world, educators and parents should be taking extra steps to ensure students’ safety. Schools should continuously review their virtual platforms for security updates; plus, here are some basic tips for all educators:

  • Learn how to lock your online classroom in the platform your school is using.
  • Do not share classroom passwords on social media.
  • Learn how to control screen and content sharing within your platform.
  • Know how to remove someone from your virtual classroom.

As more students are learning from home, parents will also play an even greater role in keeping their learners safe. Some safety tips for parents include:

  • Talking with your student about online privacy and the importance of not revealing personal information.
  • Discussing the importance of passwords and locking devices.
  • Encouraging open communication regarding online experiences, including social media.

And now, as many students and educators are returning to school buildings, we’ve learned to think about the safety of our physical building with a new invisible threat in mind. To limit the spread of COVID-19, our schools have used millions of pieces of PPE and gallons hand sanitizer, they’ve modified emergency drills, and they’ve altered their “normal” plans to fit the new environment.

Going forward, schools should look at their actions over the past year and ask an important question: What practices should stick around?

A few good follow-ups to that include:

  • What are your thresholds for distance learning?
  • How can you adjust your safety plan to fit new hazards? Will you teach with your doors unlocked or windows open?
  • Who are your partners?

As you’re considering these issues, I suggest starting by bringing together your existing partners and examining how you can come together to continue pushing through this pandemic (and a potential future emergency). What new partners can you bring to the table? The last year has highlighted the need for collaboration and information sharing.

As a requirement for the Indiana Secured School Safety Grant, for example, counties are required to establish County School Safety Commissions. These commissions are designed to pull together all stakeholders (law enforcement, emergency management, schools, public health, etc.) to discuss and plan for safety issues occurring in schools.

In addition to these external stakeholders, schools should also be asking, “Who serves on our school safety committees?” Schools know they should be including building and district leaders, school resource officers, and safety directors.  However, I would suggest not stopping there. Your school safety committee should include your school nurses, classroom teachers, counselors, and even students. Safety planning should include diversity of thought and opinion to ensure a more thoughtful and robust outcome.

I would also encourage schools to begin developing a continuity of operations plan if they don’t have one already. At the beginning of the pandemic, schools worked on the fly to develop plans for remote instruction, food distribution, connectivity, and more. Moving forward, schools should look at how to refine, formalize, implement, and practice the implementation of these procedures and policies.

Prior to the pandemic, many of these procedures either did not exist, had not been implemented, or only existed as an idea. Hoosier schools have now implemented and lived these operations. Utilizing your county school safety commissions and school safety committees, ask yourself – what worked? What didn’t work? And how can these plans be revised for future implementation?

As we move into a post-pandemic world, it is extraordinarily important to learn lessons from the world we are in today. Take time to think about how you’ll keep your students safe online and in the classroom.

Review what programs, policies, and procedures your school will keep. What did you implement that can survive outside of a pandemic? I suggest a review of all “new” items implemented from March 2020 onward. Take this opportunity to enhance your safety and security procedures using the lessons learned.

I’d also like to personally invite all school personnel to join the Indiana Department of Education’s School Safety Specialist Academy to receive ongoing training on best practices in school safety. To learn more about the Academy, please visit our website or reach out to me at sbalko@doe.in.gov.

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