Schools are required to conduct fire drills within 10 days of the start of the school year, and other emergencies like earthquakes and intruders are still a threat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Montezuma-Cortez, Mancos and Dolores school districts have had to alter how these drills are conducted to keep students safe while accommodating COVID-19 safety measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.
However, should an actual fire or emergency occur, the school districts will follow standard pre-COVID-19 protocols.
Without concerns about the virus in play, the “halls would be quite full” during a fire drill, said Jamie Haukeness, district director of school safety and facilities for Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1. Now, teachers will hold individual fire drills for their classrooms, ensuring students are appropriately spaced as they exit the building and move to their designated area.
“We will still take fire drills very seriously,” Haukeness said. If there is an actual fire, all classrooms would evacuate at the same time, but the drill allows teachers and students to practice their route, he said.
For lockdown drills in the event of a school intruder, students normally congregate in a hidden corner of the room and remain silent while the teacher locks the door and closes the blinds. Because of social distancing restrictions with COVID-19, students will sit next to their desks during a lockdown drill or use the perimeter of the room, Haukeness said.
Instead of inspecting each room individually, administrators will use the PA system to alert teachers and students when the drill is over.
In the event that an intruder entered a school, “We would not be concerned about social distancing,” Haukeness said.
“Staff understands they have discretion on whether to evacuate students if they have the opportunity,” he said.
The Montezuma-Cortez district also holds reunification drills, in which students are bused from the school campus and parents meet them at a set location to pick them up in the event of an emergency.
Haukeness said the district will hold those drills when it is safe, and “COVID determines that.”
Dolores district staff practiced each drill before the start of the year. Superintendent Lis Richard said Dolores schools will still hold the drills but will ensure mask wearing and social distancing.
However, Richard said that if a student happens to be less than 3 or 6 feet away from another student during a drill, teachers and staff will not scold or correct the student.
“The student’s understanding of what to do in the event of an emergency is the most important aspect,” Richard said. “Safety drills are very important to every child’s well-being.”
Brian Hanson, superintendent of the Mancos district, said students will wear masks during drills, but the district has not mapped out what other adjustments to make.
Guidelines from the Colorado Department of Public Safety state that “rural schools may not have the same concerns regarding contact or community spread as those in more populated areas,” and recommends that schools weigh safety risks and advice from local stakeholders when prioritizing drills and implementing guidelines.
The department suggests staggering the release of classrooms during a fire drill to avoid crowding, as well as asking students to wash their hands before returning to the classroom. For lockdown drills, the department suggests explaining the procedures with photos and videos instead of conducting them.
“Simply allowing students to exercise social distancing during a drill is acceptable as long as they understand the need to react with urgency in an actual emergency,” according to guidelines from the Department of Public Safety.