Welcome to Beyond the Bell podcast where you'll get an inside look into school life. We cover school-related topics that support your child's education and well-being. As you listen along, we hope you'll gain insights for navigating school with your child and leave with a deeper sense of connection between school and home. Here's your host, Chantelle Quesnelle.
Chantelle: Welcome, Simcoe Muskoka Catholic parents and all of our listeners. In today's episode, we are discussing emergency preparedness in schools. As a parent myself who has the benefit of working in the school board, I know how much training and preparation goes into ensuring that our schools are safe. I have a level of comfort because I'm more intimately familiar with the procedures and the protocols and the practices that every school uses to be well-prepared and to respond when an issue arises. So I think it's also important for families to know that although there's a lot more communication and media exposure around things like violence, threats and emergency situations, that the number of emergency-type incidences is actually really low. So in order to take you all Beyond the Bell and into the school-based emergency preparedness world, we have George Luck on the podcast with us.
George is currently the principal at Saint Teresa's Catholic Secondary School and has been with our school board for over 27 years working in both elementary and secondary. I have also had the pleasure of working with George when I was a school counsellor. George is an outdoor enthusiast, an avid backcountry explorer, a father and he has trained in wilderness first aid, which together, let me tell you, bring so many transferable skills into his role as an administrator. Welcome George.
George Luck: Thanks for having me Chantelle.
Chantelle: Awesome. So George, as we get started, when we're thinking about emergency preparedness in schools, help our parents and listeners understand what type of emergencies are we talking about here?
George: Well, typically there are let's say four big ones which we kind of… the typical ones which we drill for. So you'd have fire drills. So you might have lockdowns, severe weather and bomb threats, but we also try and prepare for other contingencies. Oftentimes there are power outages; whether we have, let's say vehicle accidents, anything on field trips, which staff and administration have to be aware of as well as any just regular, let's say first aid and medical, which happens in schools.
Chantelle: Sure, George, that's a long list when you really think about it. I imagine some of those things or maybe all of those things have procedures and some of them also have practices. What's the difference between those things?
George: All right. So I would say the the procedures are, are kind of, let's say what, what's written down; what you should do in certain situations as best as possible. Definitely, they're providing us, let's say, a guideline - guard rails, how-tos and who, who should be contacted. Those types of things when it actually comes to practices. When you're in the moment, oftentimes they have to be tailored to any particular situation.
So parents would be very familiar with at the beginning of the year where we ask for updated health information and sometimes that does involve, you know, what would happen in a particular situation, whether it's diabetes or asthma, possible seizure activity. There, there's a general guideline of what to do in those situations, but we're also dealing with individual students. And so what, what is, let's say necessary for one particular student may not be necessary for another, but certainly having that again, the differences between the two. We have a general idea of what to do in a situation, but we also have to tailor it to what was actually going to happen.
Chantelle: Yes. So that framework that we have for all of the situations that that you just listed there is really important. But then the flexibility to adapt that to an individual student's needs and circumstance in some cases, or I imagine to the emergency that's happening or unfolding might have nuances that you need to consider, within that framework as well.
George: Very much so.
Chantelle: Sometimes, depending on the situation, it might be something happening, you know, inside the school, it could be something happening outside the school or a threat made towards the school or a person in the school.
And then sometimes it's also something that's happening out in the community. And so one of the things I guess I'm thinking about is school isn't always the primary source of, of information and that as parents are trying to, and caregivers are trying to navigate where to get information from, that sometimes it needs to expand out beyond the school. Is is that the case to maybe direct them to other places, especially when it's happening, something might be happening in the community?
George: With our partners. Typically, it would be, let's say a police, they uh they will have media releases and sometimes they will do that just because it, it does involve something outside it in the community. But we do try to work closely with them and send out any communication either using our own system or sometimes our communications department, they can send that out on either my behalf or they can attach something to the website just to give some updates and kind of go from there. But if, if again, if we are also searching for information, we might direct them to some of those other sources.
Chantelle: So George in schools, we have lots of these procedures that we just talked about and some of these adjustments that we might make for individual situations or individual students. But there's also certain situations that we practice with the students and with the staff and the school team. And so what are some examples of the types of emergency preparedness situations that we actually routinely practice within our school board?
George: Ok. So, great question. Throughout the course of the year, we conduct six fire drills usually, you know, three… and that's what in high school it would be, let's say three in the first semester, three in the second semester, we conduct what might be, let's say two bomb threats. There, there's different stages to that. So we, we really only practice, you know what to do in the event of and, and, and let the staff and students be aware and we might only practice one little part of that. Some parts of it can be very similar to a fire drill, but we're very clear on, on what we're actually practicing at that point. We do two lockdowns through the course of the year as well as we try and do what's called “the other”. And usually that other is a severe weather to tornado drill usually in the spring.
Chantelle: Ok. Ok. So lots of different drills to fit into a single school year it sounds like.
Chantelle: Yeah. And so, well, I'm sure - and I’ve experienced all of those drills. So I know they all have their own nuances. But if you were to paint a general picture for parents if they were in the building when one of these drills was happening, what are some general things that they might experience on how these drills unfold at school? Well, fire drills that most parents would probably be very familiar with…
George: … they haven't really changed that much in many, many years. So a very loud alarm would go off students and, and classes would be exiting through designated exits and then finding themselves lined up in various places. Some schools are very, they have certain areas of the field where everybody gathers. But it all depends on, let's say the the physical layout of the building and the schoolyard and things of that nature. But basically, attendance will be taken and then an all clear will go and, and students return to the building right back into usual practice.
If it was, let's say a lockdown drill, the, you know, typically we would announce at least, let's say our, our practice right now is to make sure that everyone is aware that it is a drill that we're contact doing. So it's not to overly alarm anyone. And so what parents would kind of observe would be students being ushered into various locations of the school doors being locked and basically in, in our school, you'd notice a silence. So everything kind of goes very, very quiet. And then of course, we, we do a, a patrol around just to make sure we're checking on doors and the facility.
Uh and, and, and, and that's probably it, at, at that point, sometimes there would be a police officer or school resource officer and sometimes they do join us just to, to see how well, you know, we, we do on those. And again, there, there's usually an all-clear with all the drills. We also have opportunity for feedback from the staff on how they were conducted. Bomb threat. Lately. It's been, it hasn't been a full, let's say school evacuation, we may have done, we may target it to certain classes, you know, if this were the case, what would you do? And we kind of go, go through that process of procedure. It looks very similar to a fire drill.
Chantelle: I guess it comes back to the word preparedness that it's a, it's about “knowing what to do when” versus this dramatic acting as if something is happening and finding that back balance of making sure staff and students know what to do but not causing that state of, of alarm that might happen if it maybe was the real thing that in many cases, there's, it's differentiated between it being real and practice or versus practiced.
George: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, very much so. And, you know, the whole of course is if ever we do have these situations that, you know, students and staff will behave much like they do during some of the drills and I think you see that very much. So, if we have an unexpected fire alarm go off, everyone is sort of kind of used to the fire alarm. You know, it's whether it's real or not, they exit in a very timely manner, they meet outside and they really only know if it's, let's say a drill or not drill if the fire department shows up. So, and even then it's, it's, you know, working with the fire department to make sure everything is clear and, and welcoming everybody back in the building,
Chantelle: My office in the school board is, is within an elementary school. And so I participate in all of the emergency drills that, that school runs. And I would say even as a staff person to be part of that practice, then when those drills are run, I do have this sense of knowledge and comfort in, you know, following the routine that I know that I'm supposed to do and where I'm supposed to go and there's some comfort in that. And I think we definitely see that when new staff come on board, for example, or community partners are in our building and unless they've, you know, had that information shared and it's been something maybe they've gone through before, then the stress level goes up when we haven't practiced those things. So practicing certainly does help with stress and nerves in the moment when we need to kind of activate that practice. Right?
George: Uh certainly. Yeah, definitely. You know, it, it helps reduce the anxiety, decreasing any likelihood of a panic. And of course, just again, providing feedback if, you know, we do notice something which might not be what we wanted or best practice. And that kind of comes forward reminds me of when I was in an elementary school and we did have a visitor or two and, you know, we, we had something I, I, I, I would say, let's say, even, let's say fire drill, I'll go back to that. A new supply teacher and the students, they, you know, they were very helpful. I said, ok, here's a fire drill, here's our flag that we get. Here's the attendance that you get. This is we just follow us, we know what to do. And so they were able to certainly, you know, take those adults out in and they were used to the routine. And so it was very, you know, very helpful and they certainly weren't alarmed by it. They knew what to do,
Chantelle: Right earlier. You sort of spoke of lockdown and then wondering can you walk our listeners through the difference, George, between a hold and secure a lockdown and something like a shelter in place? Those all might be terms that parents and listeners have heard before. But can you speak to some of the differences between those, those terms? So they know what we're talking about?
George: Sure. So they do look, let's say similar but they are very, very different in terms of how they come about. So, in a lockdown, typically, what we're looking at is the potential of an immediate threat to the school or someone inside the school. It's very important for us to, you know, secure the doors, both if we can externally, but more importantly, internally and everybody basically hides in place wherever they are in the building or easily accessible to. So typically, again, that would be if there is, as I say, an immediate threat to the school or someone in the school.
Hold and secure, usually that is gonna be used, let's say sometimes it is the school is contacted by, usually let's say it might be police, there is something that is going on which might be external to the school. And so just to be out of an abundance of caution, basically, the students and staff remain inside the building, things can carry, still carry on inside the building. But in some cases, you know, we might actually just tell staff that, you know, the entire school just to ignore the bells if there is a particular situation. But again, it usually it is, let's say something is going on in the community. One time I was contacted and there might have been something going on with one of the banks in town. And so out of an abundance of caution, the the police said, you know, can you just put your your school into hold in secure. And then they contacted us shortly thereafter when they locate located that person. And so everything again carried on inside the building. But we did make sure that, uh, you know, uh the external doors were secured at that time and nobody was coming in or really leaving the building at that time. The last one - actually following along with that, so we do have a, I guess a protocol if there's a medical emergency or if there is a safety concern, potentially for a student inside of our own building, that might not be an immediate threat, but certainly they, we need to give them time and space.
And so, you know, we might call it like a hallway safety protocol. You know, staff are able to lock their doors and it's just to give the student privacy, sometimes it is a medical situation so to clear the hall so that the paramedics or EMS can attend and we can look after the student and get them help that they need.
Um, and then you mentioned the shelter-in-place, really, I think there's two situations where we would use that. One is, let's say, in terms of severe weather, perhaps a tornado. And so you're looking at moving students if, if you can into secure areas away from windows and so they're sheltering inside the the building. And the other one would be, let's say if there's an environmental concern, like a potential gas leak again. We don't want kids or students and staff leaving the building, they could remain inside the building. We might do some other things with our facility services or plant services again, taking the lead of our, our local community and following their instructions. But it might be something as shutting down some of the ventilation just to make sure that other things are, you know, safe so that they're not breathing anything if it is an environmental hazard.
Chantelle: Sure. Goodness, as, as you're sharing this information, George, I think was something that I'm sure our listeners are feeling as well is just the amount of planning and awareness and intricacies of all the different considerations that go into these different types of situations and the role that leadership plays, the administrators play and, and the staff play and the students play and really supporting the safety of the school, the safety of, of students in the community as those things occur. And, and that's, that's a lot to, to manage at once and to work through and to keep all those considerations in mind. And so as you were giving that example, I think that just really stood out for me that I can see, I can see you and I know our listeners can't, but all the wheels that must be turning as you proceed in supporting the school through a situation. And so as a principal, what's on the top of your mind, whether it's an actual or a suspected emergency? Like how do you approach navigating all of these considerations you just identified?
George: The, the big thing is one just making sure that you take a breath that you know, the we remain calm and then it's a question of, ok, well, who do we need to line up? The big thing is gonna be information. What else do we need to know about a particular situation? And once we have that kind of in place, all right, who are we contacting? So what are we actually talking about? Is it a medical situation? So front of mind is, you know, one immediately, is the student or staff member looked after medically and you know, are, you know, using in, in our school and most schools that I'm aware of, we do carry other communication devices. So whether it's a walkie-talkie or a cell phone, so we can contact the main office pretty easily.
Typically, it might be the main office contacting us saying there's a situation in a certain room. And so, you know, on our way to investigate, you know, we might tell them, ok, just be ready to call 911 because we might need that information. So for medical, if it is getting the the phone call from the police. All right. Ok. What information can you tell us or is there an immediate threat to the school? Um, and they might have, they know the language as well. So, you know, they will tell us, you know, either, you know, put the school in the lockdown or put it in a hold-and-secure or put it in a shelter-in-place. All of that is, is possible. They are very well aware of the lingo and we do communicate with them fairly regularly. But the big thing for us again is, is slowing it down, taking a breath, getting information as much as we can and then knowing what the plan is to kind of start it going. You know, yet again, are we calling 911? Are we calling other staff? Are there other staff members that might have expertise if there's a student in crisis, you know, who might be their go-to and you know, basically you're looking at the safety and well-being of the staff and students, that's what's paramount to us at any time.
Chantelle: Yeah. So again, what an example of all of the different things that you're looking through and going through. And I love how you described, you know, starting off the process with taking a breath and grounding yourself as you approach the emergencies. And I'll just remind everybody of all the different skills that George brings to the job, including his backcountry skills and his wilderness skills and being a father that this is where some of that competency transfer comes over and in terms of taking that breath and approaching the situation because yeah, you need to access that the full potential of your brain George, as an administrator to work through all these pieces, which includes managing your own stress I imagine in the process.
George: Again, with the, the team and all the other supports that we have here at the school, certainly relying on them and going through whether you know, schools have their own committees and, and people that are also, let's say first aid trained and you call on them and then of course, the communication that might have to go to parents. So in the immediate moment, it might be very stressful for us but also letting other people know that, ok, that we have a situation and we might need other resources brought to bear to help us.
Chantelle: Yeah, I think, you know, that really takes us into this next section that would be helpful to talk about because we spoke about, you know, the the principal role, the the staff role and you know, the student's job in, in these emergency situations and, and given that we have our audience of, of parents and, and caregivers wondering, you know, what's their role in supporting the school and their child, their youth within the school when these situations are happening? It's a really good question and there's a multifaceted answer.
George: I would of course, encourage everyone in much the same way. You need to take a breath, these situations, you know, crises, everyone wants to know, you know, as much as they can right away. And hopefully I've described it, you know, sometimes that we just don't know all the information as of yet. So it's very difficult for us to kind of share that out once we do have an I and really our focus is the health and well-being of the staff and students to make sure that's in, you know, that we have that looked after and contacting our other partners to, to help with that.
George: Once that kind of immediate situation is kind of dealt with, that's when we can start kind of start looking. Ok. Well, we do, we do have to inform the staff here at the building. Ok. What is going on because they're in the situation. They, if, if you're in a room, you don't know what's been going on, you just know that you've been placed in either holding secure shelter in place, something of that nature. So it's trying to make sure that there's a communication piece within the school that the staff are aware. We try and let the students be aware of, you know, whether it's a drill being over or our particular situation is now cleared and then of course, letting our office staff know as well. They're on the front lines of getting phone calls. And so sometimes they just don't have the information readily available to them. And so, you know, it's, it's, it's, it can be frustrating. I know as a parent possibly trying to get some information. But the, the biggest, the biggest thing is take a breath, we will get you the information as much as we can when we can. And sometimes, you know, I would recommend that in situations where we would say, you know, it, it's advisable to come to the school to pick up your child. Typically. However, the the message would be, you know, there is no necessity, there's no immediate need for, for parents to line up and, and ready to remove kids from the building. Usually most, most things we do have in hand and we have a plan in place for.
Chantelle: Yeah, and I'm just thinking of, I I I think you kind of described it quite well in terms of this, this communication flow chart that needs to happen in order for even the communication out to the parents to, to go out because it is staff and your clerical support, your office staff that would need to be able to relay that information, but it can, it can take time to get that information to them so that they can send that out and support parent calls that happen.
And then maybe the additional layer George, when you're, you know, managing all the things that you've identified and then now you're also managing the, the front entrance way and the parent calls that are coming in and, and how that adds another layer of complexity to these situations.
George: Yeah. Yeah. It's, it, it when, when things do happen and it's all hands on deck to make sure that, you know, everyone is kind of looked after and, you know, I, but I, again, I do understand that there's, there can be frustration if there is not a lot of information going out. Sometimes we just don't have that information and other times we're still dealing with, you know, other ramifications of, of an initial, of initial situation.
Chantelle: Yeah. And so, you know, as a parent, I know that, you know, this episode and, and having this, this information doesn't necessarily take away the the worry, or the stress and anxiety when you know, your child is, is at a school who is engaged in one of these emergency situations. But I'm also hopeful that having that inside look and understanding the, that the training and the guidelines and the considerations that principals and leadership teams are going through when the situation happens, that there's some comfort in knowing that the delay in communication is because they're attending to the, the safety concerns for staff and students and they're making all of those considerations before they're able to get communicate to communication. But that communication is also on the agenda. It just needs to be prioritized based on those safety pieces. And I think knowing that, there's some comfort in that as well.
George: Yeah, I certainly hope so.
Chantelle: Yeah. Yeah. Well, George, I think this has been a really helpful episode and I hope that our to our listeners that as we wrap up this episode today, that it's helped give all of you an inside look at how we plan and prepare for emergency situations at school. A big thanks to Principal George Luck for helping us take this inside look.
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Thanks for listening to Beyond The Bell Podcast. We hope you found today's episode helpful. Beyond The Bell is brought to you by the SImcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and our Catholic Parent Involvement Committee. It's hosted by Chantelle Quesnelle. Pauline Stevenson is our executive producer.
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