As America prepares to mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, school districts and education leaders are being encouraged to begin a new school year with renewed efforts to develop and strengthen disaster preparedness.

Organized by the Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP) Team, coordinated by Terry Smithson and Melinda Dinin of Intel, ed-tech experts and emergency-preparedness school staff members attended a webinar Aug. 23 that highlighted the need for schools to have solid emergency plans in place. The web-based gathering also considered steps that educational institutions should take to prepare for potential disasters.

For example, Shannon Autry, customer advocate for the web-conferencing company Elluminate, commented: “We know that it is when, and not if—whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster, or other event. If we can develop a solid and effective plan for this, then as a whole and as a society, we’ll be able to reduce the economic and social impact” of a disaster.

In the aftermath of a disaster, Autry said, trying to create an atmosphere that reduces its adverse impact is essential, especially for children. Using eLearning tools such as those developed by Elluminate can help keep students remain focused on school and other normal routines, she said, noting that education departments across the country are responsible for developing alternative learning and teaching plans in advance of emergencies.

“Schools should be ready to deal with possible closings, student and staff absences, medical care for children, and the need to maintain and restore student-learning environments,” Autry said.

That could be accomplished, she said, by “developing alternative procedures to assure the continuity of instruction with web-based and online instruction, digital resources, learning management systems, or live online instruction through a virtual classroom.”

“It is vital that communication and learning channels continue with students, teachers, administrators, and parents,” Autry said. “We want to encourage you to try and replicate that four-walled classroom as much as possible, to give an atmosphere in which students are comfortable.”

As the HELP team continues to concentrate on efforts to rebuild Gulf Coast schools in Katrina’s aftermath, it is also trying to let educators across the globe know just how important preparedness is.

Dinin, HELP team project manager, said the group is preparing a readiness survey to guide districts in planning for pre- and post-disaster actions. The team’s goal is to use the survey results to match districts’ needs with HELP Team partner solutions, case studies, and best practices.

In addition, the team is working on a menu of recommended elements for skills, tools, and technology that should be included in 21st-century learning environments for schools that face rebuilding. The menus will include supporting research, white papers, and products and services from the HELP Team. Each menu will be based on the circumstances a school might face in various situations—ranging from minor damage caused by a storm to the destruction of an entire school.

One of the team’s new ventures is a learning continuity plan. A committee on “pandemic and disaster preparedness” is developing the plan, which Dinin said would “encourage folks to start thinking about what they need to do today to prepare for the inevitable, and to address issues of how they would provide continued learning.”

“If there was a disaster tomorrow, would we all be able to educate our children?” she asked. “I think we learned from Katrina that … children need structure.”

It could take a while for school districts “to train teachers to use a product like Elluminate and to incorporate their curriculum into an online module, Dinin added, so it’s imperative to start now.

“People cannot afford to wait,” she said.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is sponsoring National Preparedness Month in September for the fourth consecutive year. The campaign seeks to educate and encourage Americans to become active in preparing for possible emergencies. DHS has brought together hundreds of volunteer organizations to establish a National Preparedness Coalition that will develop and host preparedness events and activities throughout the nation.

In conjunction with DHS activities, Bridge Multimedia, a coalition member, is offering a free online series, 30 Days, 30 Resources. The program will feature articles, guides, lists, and links to timely facts on disaster readiness for homes, schools, and businesses. Read the first eight articles for Week 1: Back-to-School.

Since 2004, Bridge Multimedia has posted and updated an online directory called Emergency Info Online. Serving as a community outreach effort, the directory provides information about emergency preparedness, especially as it relates to people with disabilities.

The month-long offering of articles on emergency preparedness will include subjects such as emergency planning for educational facilities, how to talk with children about emergency preparedness, terrorism preparedness, emergency planning for students with disabilities and for non-English speaking families, and preparing for a flu pandemic. The entire schedule can be found online.

Links:

Education Leadership Program Team

Elluminate

Emergency Info Online

U.S. Department of Homeland Security: National Preparedness Month