Being Weather Ready for the School Year

By NIU STEAM Educator K.C. Sauer

School is back in session!  This year is special with most learners heading back into the classroom after last year’s turbulence.  While distance learning was not ideal for every student and disrupted many aspects of family life, the learners were mainly at home, and taking shelter during storms was much different. Now that students are back in schools, districts are responsible for keeping schools safe when severe weather strikes.

When I was a young learner growing up in southwestern Illinois, my school scheduled several tornado drills every year. I went to elementary school in a building that was over 100 years old, had no air conditioning, smelled of lead paint, and had a fallout shelter in the basement. The protocol was for us to go to a hallway in the lowest floors of the school building. Each classroom had an assigned area of the hallway. Once in our assigned area of the hallway, we had to crouch on our knees, lower our heads as close to the wall as possible, tuck and cover our head with our hands.

The early years of the 2010 decade brought a record-breaking number of tornadoes throughout the United States.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, 1703 tornadoes were confirmed with 23 being violent and 6 being rated EF5 in 2011. Notable tornado events occurred such as the Super Outbreak of 2011 throughout the deep south and the catastrophic EF5 Joplin tornado, and then the Moore, OK tornado of 2013. Many schools were damaged during this period. This, coupled with the technology of surveillance cameras offered a glimpse into how debris moves throughout the interior of school buildings as a tornado strikes it. 

Hallways become wind tunnels and moving students to hallways has become a much-debated topic with emergency managers and school district personnel. Many school districts are reassessing where to house students when a tornado warning, or worse, a tornado emergency has been issued. Many districts choose to house students on the inside walls of classrooms and offices on the lowest floor of the building if they have the space.  Some districts will house students in basements if there is one available. Large schools with hundreds, or thousands of students still must use hallways because they do not have the space to house students in interior classrooms. According to Dr. Steve Stuart, Ed. D., principal of Edwardsville High School in Edwardsville, IL, the school building design and number of students mean there are not enough interior classrooms to house all students safely.

Districts also review their emergency management plans every year. Edwardsville Community Unit School District in southwestern Illinois has a different emergency plan for each building that takes into account the number of students being housed and also the architecture and layout of each school building. As needs arise throughout the year, the plans are reviewed and adjusted to meet the changing needs of the school population.  With many changes occurring each year, folders are kept inside each office and classroom with detailed information on what to do in every conceivable emergency scenario. Additionally, safety protocols for dismissal, athletic practices and events, and other non-athletic extra curriculum activities after school are made on a case-by-case basis and in the moment an emergency is imminent.

For times when learners are in flex periods like coming to school, dismissal, and outdoors for athletic or other extra curriculum activities, it is important to be weather aware by being observant of the weather and having ways to get warnings, and quick planning on changing weather conditions and then communicating those plans to others nearby.

The National Weather Service Office offers education opportunities to the general public for free through their NWS Spotter Training Program. Classes have been held online the past year but are generally held in-person. Trained Spotters are valuable in reporting severe weather, but they are also valuable in keeping oneself safe during severe weather events. The classes are designed for middle school age learners and up. Though many grade school learners have taken the classes, they’re ineligible to become official trained spotters. The knowledge is still really beneficial to all learners.

The National Weather Service also has an entire website related to teaching learners about weather. There is a wealth of information and activities for learners of all ages.

Schools can only be part of the weather ready community. Parents and their children also need to be knowledgeable about what to do when severe weather is present. Being weather ready is about being part of the community and helping others be aware of the current conditions and finding shelter quickly and easily. Having a way to get warnings and having a plan is the best way for to have a weather ready education community. Our goal is to progress through the school year successfully no matter the weather conditions.