Weeks before COVID-19 shut down the world, I was walking a stretch of beach in Hilton Head, South Carolina. While beautiful, my reason for being there was less than idyllic. My colleagues and I were on “America’s favorite island” to co-develop a worker recovery disaster management strategy. The beach my team walked on each night could be washed away the next time a hurricane hits.
For years, this coastal community has dedicated time, talent, and resources to disaster preparedness and response. When dangerous weather arrives, plans are put in motion, and local leaders and rescue personnel know what to do, when to act, and who is responsible for which actions.
It was only two years ago when leaders acted on the pressing need to plan ways to help workers during and after a disaster. Extreme weather threatens more than roads, homes, and buildings, yet disaster management rarely includes ways to help workers and families get back on their feet.
In the end, we created a guide on disaster workforce resilience in the South, but I was left with more questions than answers.
Then COVID came, shocking our workforce and education systems and throwing all of us into crisis-mode. In the beginning, I would often think about my time in Hilton Head and wonder what might have been different if our schools and employers had disaster management plans in place.
Schools are always at risk of being shaken or shut down by outside forces and nearby crises. We have seen this happen to places like New Orleans after Katrina, Joplin after the tornadoes, or Sandy Hook and Parkland after school shootings.
COVID was the first time we experienced a disaster shake our schools at scale.
As the pandemic continues to disrupt schooling, additional forces are simultaneously threatening regions across the U.S.: wildfires out West, a deep freeze in Texas, extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest, and hurricanes across the Gulf.
This summer, as back-to-school plans were put in place, the United Nations declared a “code red on humanity,” basically telling us we’ve reached a doomsday scenario in regard to climate change. As the Washington Post recently reported, this means today’s students will face far more climate-related disasters than we ever did.
Most districts and schools were unprepared for a global pandemic, and surprised when it happened. This doesn’t have to happen again. The next time a big crisis hits, we can be ready to respond, recover, and prevent the relentless stress and hardship that have defined these past three school years.
It is time to future shock-proof our schools.
Build Resiliency Roadmaps
In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation invested in 100 US communities, to prepare for future physical, social and economic shocks. Cities were tasked with developing “resiliency roadmaps” and learning from each other in a networked community. A similar effort occurred globally, supported by the OECD. We can do the same thing in education.
For more than a decade, education funders have invested heavily in communities of learning, national networks, and other cohort experiences. Cross-state and cross-community learning have become a staple of recent reforms. These efforts have focused on deeper learning, performance assessments, and equity in education. Moving forward, they can also focus on disaster resilience and recovery, and future shock-proofing our schools.
We can use intelligence gathered from the Rockefeller and OECD Resilient Cities initiatives to guide us moving forward. They provide clear signals for what to focus on: where Resilient Cities have plans to protect and prepare the economy, governance, society and environment in times of disaster; Resilient Schools can have plans to protect and prepare the educator workforce, leadership, students and families, and infrastructure.
Create Disaster Management Plans
While roadmaps will guide us into the future, education leaders can immediately evaluate policies and processes put in place during COVID, and decide what should be kept or shelved for future shocks. These decisions can be building blocks for robust disaster management plans.
For districts engaged in strategic planning, disaster resilience and recovery can become a key priority area. For those with active employer, community or student advisories, these groups can be tasked with reflecting on these past two years and identifying what’s needed to prepare for and respond to future events.
For schools in places already vulnerable and used to extreme weather, now is the time to engage with local leaders, ensuring the integration of worker and student recovery strategies into existing disaster management plans. Education leaders and educators need a seat at the table and should be a vocal and integral part of community-level resiliency planning moving forward.
Leverage the Moment
I talk to enough educators and district leaders to realize the idea of adding another thing to the to-do list feels borderline offensive. I suspect some will read this and think it’s hard enough to deal with the crisis at hand, let alone the one that hasn’t happened yet.
I get it. I see the exhaustion in the educators and leaders I know. I hear the remarks at school board meetings, and I am personally experiencing a divided school community.
I also know this is the right time to future shock-proof our schools. We are close to the issue, and this moment-in-time proximity gives us sharper insights and compels us to put plans in place. The farther we move from COVID response and recovery, the more likely we are to forget the specific pain and problems it presented.
From Acceptance to Action
Sometimes harder than planning, is accepting. It is not if another major disruption or disaster will occur, but when and what then. These past few years have pushed us into a new reality where volatility and disruption define how we live, learn and work.
It reminds me of a recent conversation with a friend from New Orleans. I was checking in after Hurricane Ida, and his response floored me. He told me that things were bad, but he was OK. His house has a generator. He was fortunate to evacuate before the storm made landfall. By the time we talked, his power was back on, and he was working again. He told me the bigger worry was families in places like my hometown in New Jersey. Unprepared communities across the northeast experienced historic flash flooding in the final days of the hurricane, with devastating consequences.
Future shock-proofing our schools cannot stop the shocks from coming. Resilient Schools give us ways to be smart in a disaster, but they will not save us from it. Disaster management is about being realistic and ready for what’s coming. It is worth our time, coordination and consideration. Lives and learning are on the line.