Every forward thinking school and teacher knows that ongoing professional development is a very important ingredient when it comes to teaching and fostering a culture of lifelong learning in the school and community. This learning extends to the tertiary sector where people continue to study and their findings in turn ignite our interest and we continue to learn and apply further knowledge into our workplace. Two researchers that I have on my radar are David Johnston from Massey University who completed research on ‘School Closures during Disasters: Impacts on Children’ and Tom Wilson from Canterbury University who completed research on ‘Rural Families and Disasters: Stories from Canterbury, Iceland and Patagonia’. Both these two people would be quick to say that they were part of a team but any researcher would also be pleased that their research findings are being shared within the education sector and community. Their findings focus on schools and the important role they play in the community. So regardless of which school you are part of, their findings can be applied. So what can we take from this research?
Research findings show that schools played a vital role in communities where a disaster has occurred. Where schools stay open in a community following a disaster in the community it was found that the children did not suffer any long term impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. An example of this is back in 2003 in Te Anau where a local primary school stayed open and arranged activities for the children in the school hall for the morning while teachers tidied up the classrooms and in the afternoon they came together and had a sports afternoon. The staff focused on coping and that had a lasting effect on the students in the school and greatly helped the parents working on the farms trying to recover also.
It also highlighted the importance of a school staying open in a range of emergencies such as flooding. In 2004 a school was closed for a week following floods due to a loss of water for toilets. The whole town had no water so the option to keep the school open was still a possibility. The research showed that the school closure had a big impact on working parents who had to make other arrangements or take leave from work. It is the wider community implications that are worth thinking through.
The other important aspect of readiness in schools is developing a plan for looking after children at school and managing the process of children leaving school and children staying at school till someone arrives. It is also important for children to understand that there will likely be a time lag before someone arrives at school to collect them. With our reliance on cell phones and the likelihood that telecommunication systems will experience outages, children need to understand that there will be a time delay before communication from loved ones occurs or before their parents/ caregivers plan a safe route to get to them. Schools that understand this can reassure children so they don’t become more stressed waiting or that they might be the in the last group of children waiting to be collected. It is important that the person collecting the child is sighted by someone that knows the adult and it’s not just a name of a person on paper. Parents are not keen in the idea that just any adult will take their child. Some schools do not allow children to be removed by a parent or adult and keep the children together. Parents can however be present in a support role.
Parents/ caregivers say to us that after an earthquake they will go to get to their children even through dangerous, hazardous areas that could compromise their own lives. This urge decreases when parents (26%) trust the school has a well prepared preparedness plan compared to parents (65%) who don’t think their school has a well prepared plan and would collect their children no matter what.
Communities, Board of Trustees, Schools, Principals, Parents and Caregivers do well to recognize that their schools play a vital role in supporting children during an emergency response as well as assisting the recovery process within their communities. By making sure the school is safe and parents/ caregivers understand this prior to an emergency or disaster then all benefit and we become a very resilient community.