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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


If the tornado siren blares before the school bell

Author: Shulamit M. Schweitzer, MHS, Senior Management Analyst, GAP Solutions Inc. contractor supporting the Division for At-Risk Individuals, Behavioral Health, and Community Resilience (ABC), Office of Policy and Planning (OPP), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR)
Published Date: 9/2/2016 4:21:00 PM
Category: Public Health Preparedness;

The beginning of the school year is upon us and kids are excited to board school buses and get back to class. But, do you know which steps the teachers or child care providers would take to protect your child if disaster struck before he or she got back home from school or child care?

As a parent, I know that it doesn’t need to be an incident that affects hundreds of children that gets you the most concerned – it’s the incidents that affect your own child. In May 2016, there was a shooting spree that put much of Montgomery County, Maryland, on lockdown, including my child’s day care center. I know firsthand as a parent how scary it can be not to know whether your child is safe, but I also know as an emergency planner how important it is to ensure there’s a plan to protect my child’s safety, and allow it to work to best ensure everyone’s safety.

What’s the Plan?

So, as the school year begins its important to have the information you need to be reassured that your children will be safe. Do you know what the disaster plan is for the school or child care facility your child attends? If not, then ask them that question. And, if they have one, get a copy of it. Here are eight other questions you will want to ask them to make sure they’re prepared and you know what to do:

  • How will you safely evacuate my child to a safe, predetermined location? You also will want to know how the children will be moved and to where. If your child has special needs, make sure those are being taken into consideration.

  • How and when will I be notified if a disaster occurs while my child is in your care? Make sure you have at least two ways to be contacted (phone numbers, emails, for example), and keep your contact information current. Also ask if there is a central phone number that you could call during an emergency for information, a school website to go to, or a television or radio station that will have the up to date information.

  • If I cannot get my child during a disaster, how will you continue to care for my child? If you disagree with their plans or procedures, be sure to discuss it with them. Also be sure that you have provided to the school and child care center additional emergency contacts that you have given permission to pick up your child should you not be able to in an emergency. Your child should know who those people are.

  • Have you or your staff received training on how to respond to my child’s physical and emotional needs during and after a disaster? It is critical that care providers receive training in how to respond to disasters. This training includes not just practicing drills, but understanding how to support children’s behavioral and emotional needs in developmentally appropriate ways during an emergency. Ask providers how vital records on children are kept, especially for those with special needs, and made available to emergency responders during a disaster to make sure they can receive the care they need.

  • Do you practice all your emergency plans including fire drills, evacuations, shelter in place, and lockdown drills with the whole school or child care center? Even young children are able to participate in emergency drills if they are explained in an age and developmentally appropriate manner and provided support during and after the drills.

  • Do you have a disaster kit with enough items to meet my child’s needs for three days? Each household should keep on hand enough supplies to be self-sufficient for three days in case of a disaster, and you want a facility where your child might be during a disaster to be equally prepared. If they don’t have a kit or enough supplies, consider working with other parents to pool together the necessary supplies. If your child needs medicine regularly, provide an extra supply to their school or child care center just in case.

  • Do the state and local emergency management agencies and responders know about your child care program and where it’s located? Local emergency management agencies usually know where schools are located, but what about the child care center where you send your child? It’s worth taking a minute to call them to confirm that yourself.

  • How may I help you prepare for a disaster and help during and after a disaster? Volunteer to help your provider prepare by organizing supplies, collecting or getting supplies donated, or organize a phone tree of parents to make calls during a disaster. Most importantly, parents can help by following the emergency plan of the school or child care center and waiting until they are told it is safe to pick up their children from the school or child care center or evacuation site. Showing up before parents have been told it is safe will only put parents at risk of getting hurt as well as needlessly showing up and being told that they can’t get their child yet or can’t access the facility.

When my son was at child care during those 2016 shooting incidents, I experienced the same anxiety any other parent feels when an emergency occurs and they’re separated from their children. You feel helpless because you have to wait and can’t get your child right away and you want to do everything you can to ensure they are safe, but you need to be patient. I had reassurance that day because I knew my son’s child care center had a plan, the center had activated the plan and they had communicated that all the children, including my son, were all safe.

As it turns out, the best way to ensure children are safe during a disaster while at school or day care is to make sure there’s a well-thought out plan in place before disaster strikes. Now is the time to do that. If your child’s school or day care center does not already have a plan, excellent resources are provided by HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the U.S. Department of Education.

After you ask these critical questions about how your child would be protected if a disaster occurred while they were away at school or child care, pose similar questions at home, and develop a disaster plan for your family.


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