Mike Matranga’s work focuses on “threat assessment and mitigation,” a fitting description for his previous job as a Secret Service agent and in his current role as head of school safety and security for a 9,200-student district on the Texas Gulf Coast.

“I’m a planner,” says Matranga, who has worked for the Texas City Independent School District since June 2018. “It’s free to plan. I tell people that all the time. It just takes time to have a plan and to be ready to put it in place.”

When reports of the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced overseas in late January, Matranga and his team—military veterans who “know our way around operations”—started work on the district’s disaster plan. They focused on how food, technology, and instructional materials would be distributed if schools were forced to close.

“People kind of laughed at us. They said, ‘You guys are crazy,’” Matranga says, recalling phone calls he had with the Department of State Health Services and the Galveston County Health District.

Within weeks, no one was laughing. Less than a month after the first U.S. cases were reported in Washington state in late February, the nation found itself in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic that has since altered many aspects of daily life. School buildings have been shut down and instruction moved—with widely varying degrees of success—online. In the ensuing upheaval, time-honored activities and traditions such as proms, field days, sports, spring musicals, and even graduation ceremonies were canceled as “social distancing” became the nation’s catchphrase.

The pandemic’s long-term effect on students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being will not be known for some time. But it has brought attention to equity issues that greatly impact the education of our nation’s children as well as to the burdens placed on school districts charged with taking care of them. While no one emerges unscathed from this type of event, forward-thinking districts that focus on emergency management, operations, and communications have a better chance of weathering the inevitable storms.

“This is not something isolated that’s affecting only students,” says Tinisha Parker, director of advisement and counseling for Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools, a 180,000-student district outside Atlanta. “It’s affecting everybody, the entire staff, from custodians to the principal to the teachers to the central office and student services personnel. Everyone is being impacted, and there’s going to be a sustained need.”

New ballgame

Rick Kaufman was the communications director for Colorado’s Jefferson County Public Schools when two students killed 12 classmates and one teacher before taking their own lives at Columbine High School. Six years later, in 2005, he worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a month, coordinating the public information efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve been prepared for the worst-case scenario, myself and others immersed in this kind of work, for such a long time,” Kaufman says. “But because this hasn’t happened before in modern history, the forces around it are so hard to comprehend and so hard to wrap your head around.”

Kaufman, now the executive director for community relations and emergency management for Minnesota’s Bloomington Public Schools, has co-written the past two editions of a comprehensive crisis communications manual for the National School Public Relations Association. Included in the manual is a section on planning for a pandemic, inspired in part by the H1N1 scare that threatened the U.S. in 2009.

“When we got wind of [COVID-19], we were prepared with a pandemic plan and what it looked like, but nobody could fully anticipate something like this,” Kaufman says. “Like with Columbine, you’re still learning on the fly. The only advantage having a plan gave us was when this ramped up, we had already ramped up. We had our plan in place and were executing it, but we weren’t ready for the unknowns. No one is.”

Allison Anderson, an associate professor at Columbia University and an international education consultant, says most schools have “critical” gaps in emergency preparedness planning and crisis management. The lack of longterm research and guidance, she says, is “disastrous” for schools and communities.

“While many schools around the world have some sort of preparedness plan in place to deal with natural disasters, armed violence, flu, and other emergencies, the vast majority have not planned for the prospect of monthlong or longer school closures,” Anderson wrote in a paper published by the Brookings Institution as the pandemic spread into the U.S. in March. “As a result, many schools, teachers, and families lack guidance about how to prepare for educational continuity and psychosocial support to students during long-term out-of-school closures.”

Paul Tandy, chief communications and emergency management officer for Missouri’s Parkway Public Schools, says his 18,000-student district developed a pandemic plan in conjunction with the H1N1 scare. But even though the original plan acknowledged schoolwork would have to be done at home, e-learning was not part of the equation when it was written.

“It’s a whole new ballgame. We were not ready for this,” says Tandy, noting the district’s teachers took a four-day crash course on using online learning software in early March. “We’ll be so much more ready in the future, but the learning curve on this has been tremendous.”

Gwinnett County’s pandemic planning team has been in place since 2008, and the district has had a vigorous digital learning program since 2010.

In addition to instruction, the district has a program that provides food to any student—not just those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals—who shows up at the various bus stop pickup points. A team within the pandemic task force is helping families who need devices or internet service.

“There’s a lot to learn, but we were in a decent place because we were able to continue instruction and to meet most of the daily functions right away,” Parker says. “We feel a real responsibility to make sure our students know we’re taking care of them even if they’re not in front of us.”

Technology tools

Outside threats are nothing new in Texas City ISD. The refineries surrounding the district produce 13 percent of the nation’s oil and represent an omnipresent security risk. Two schools—both in the former La Marque ISD that was absorbed into Texas City by state order in 2016—were lost in Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

But it was the May 18, 2018, shooting at Santa Fe High School, located only 12 miles from Texas City ISD’s central office, that led to Matranga’s hiring three days later. The La Marque native returned home after more than 20 years and was given $6.5 million in bond funds to hire an experienced team and put state-of-the-art security technology in place. The district now has 19 deputies from the Galveston County Sheriff’s Department working in its schools.

“The most important thing schools need to do is start planning in advance for multiple different scenarios, whether it’s a pandemic, a school shooting, or a natural disaster,” Matranga says. “You have to have a contingency to that plan. You have to be flexible so you can adapt and overcome, because most first plans don’t survive the first contact. What some would think is an easy process of distributing meals and textbooks can be much more difficult than you think.”

The difference-maker, Matranga says, is Texas City’s embrace of technology, which makes “our lives a lot easier so we can be ahead of the problem, so we can see the problem coming, and so we know how to identify potential issues.”

As the district ramped up its pandemic planning efforts in February, Matranga and his school safety director, Craig Straw, customized an emergency management mobile app developed by Raptor Technologies to track technology, curriculum, and meal distribution. In March, with drive-thru pickups set at 11 sites, students in grades 6-12 received laptops while those in grades K-5 were given a hard copy of the curriculum and textbooks. Students who did not have Wi-Fi or broadband access received secure devices the district had purchased for administrators from AT&T. If parents did not come to pick up the devices and curriculum, they were delivered to homes.

Planning seems impossible

Mary Fertakis served for 22 years on the school board in Tukwila, Washington, a low-income school district just outside Seattle that is only 30 minutes from Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. Now a member of the Washington State Board of Education, she has been on the front line since the nation’s first coronavirus death was reported in a neighboring community in late February.

“This is one of those defining things for a generation, like the Great Depression or World War II, that will significantly change the way we do things moving forward,” says Fertakis. “Because we were on the front end of this curve here, we’ve seen it from the very beginning, and it will change things.”

Tove Tupper, assistant director of communications for the 19,000-student Highline Public Schools close to Tukwila, has updated families and staff seven days a week since March 1. The process, she says, seems never-ending. At times, planning seems impossible.

“Any sense of what has been remotely possible has come true. It’s really crazy,” says Tupper, who recently surveyed parents about whether the district was communicating enough or too often. “But people have been grateful for the consistency, accuracy, and demeanor of the messages.”

Tupper’s district was hesitant to start its online learning program, citing equity and access issues for students, 65 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. But after an edict issued by the state superintendent, the district handed out more than 10,000 Chromebooks in a week and a half. Highline used its spring break to purchase more Wi-Fi hot spots to help students connect from home.

“We’re trying to figure all of this out, and we know we have to be as flexible as possible with our teaching staff and our families,” she says. “It’s not going to look like a regular school day in distance learning.”

Fertakis believes the pandemic can—and should—force states and local government to focus on equity issues.

“This is not an issue of resources. This is an issue of will,” Fertakis says. “If we have the will to do it, then we can do it. At the same time, I worry about kids slipping back without structure in place, because this can put them into a tailspin. How much time is it going to take once things get back to ‘normal’ for them to move forward?”

Timeline to normal

The timeline to normal—for many the restoration of school routines and traditions that provide comfort and purpose—remains an unknown. It’s a fact of life when you’re dealing with something unprecedented.

“We’re getting better at how we operate in this new world,” Tandy says. “We’re starting to figure it out, but it’s a different way of doing business. We still have a governance system. We’re still paying our bills. We still have students learning. But it’s different. No question.”

Always the planner, Matranga hopes to get a grant from the state that would bring a counseling program focused on social and emotional learning to Texas City.

“Students have been taken out of their everyday comfort zone because most of them look at school as the break they need from the situation they’re in at home,” he says. “That’s why the mental health piece is so critical. We have to be compassionate.”

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