Disaster Recovery | Feature

Facing Down Catastrophe: Disaster Planning for Schools

The process of preparing for disaster can actually help your school or district find the agility it needs to weather any kind of change, emergency or otherwise.

Joe Annibale, superintendent of Union Beach School District, remembers getting the call Monday night, Oct. 29, 2012. The custodians reported to him that the lone school in the district — Memorial, which was the highest point in town and always served as the evacuation center in times of trouble — was taking on water. And not just water, Hurricane Sandy had engulfed this community of 6,245 people with a slushy cocktail of street runoff, sewage, and salt water, like a scene "out of the Titanic," Annibale recounted.

He "immediately" contacted a disaster restoration company, knowing he'd have to beat the crush that soon would be coming from every other building owner in the region suffering loss during the storm. The next day that company came onsite with generators, lighting, and wet/dry vacs and began sucking up the sludge, while Annibale began assessing the damage with an administrator. "I knew immediately when I took a tour of the building that my students were not returning to this school any time soon," he recalled.

Beyond that, however, Annibale was at a loss. "We really didn't even have an idea of where to start," he acknowledged. "But we knew that the plan was to figure out something so that we could get up and running as soon as possible and get these kids back into classrooms."

Dealing with Disaster Requires Agility
The idea that a district was ill prepared for a major disaster doesn't surprise Evangelina Mangino, vice president of ESP Solutions Group, an advisory company for state and local education agencies. "People are very hopeful that nothing will happen to them," she explained.

President and CEO Glynn Ligon added, "Disaster prevention and recovery is typically relegated to the IT people. And people don't think about it until some natural disaster passes them by. They hope for the best and they trust the systems they have." The problem with that approach, he pointed out, is that "people aren't very good at planning when they're sitting in the middle of a disaster. They're not going to be thinking clearly at that time."

Dealing with an emergency effectively is the ultimate form of change management, thrust upon participants whether they're ready for it or not. Therefore, much of what disaster preparedness addresses is becoming more agile in how you perform your operations in the first place. Or, as Kevin Lo, lead tech analyst for nonprofit TechSoup Global, put it, having an IT infrastructure in place "that is ready for change is part of preparing for a disaster."

Ligon concurred. "What our clients do is document and plan and design their systems so that they can respond to change and they can keep their systems and their processes functioning when those changes occur."

How do you prepare your district or school for the unexpected? As Dwight Eisenhower famously declared, "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." These experts offer seven practices to get your planning kicked off.

Reconsider How You Define 'Disaster'
Lo encourages the organizations he works with to "think of the most common disaster that could hit." It may not be a natural one, such as a tornado or earthquake. It could be somebody hacking into the network. "It's better to be protected against someone accessing your system illegally than preparing for a tornado that may not hit."

Or if the power goes out, noted Mangino, a large district could lose "millions of dollars in cafeteria frozen food" because their schools don't have alarms to notify anybody that the freezers are thawing.

Another potential disaster, she said, might be "somebody leaving who has all the knowledge to perform something and then nobody knows how to do it." Or as Ligon put it, "We name hurricanes and other disasters after people. But disasters can also have people's names on them."

In fact, one major school district ESP worked with chose training as one of the top two priorities to focus on for its disaster prevention and recovery and business continuation work. In that environment Mangino pointed out, "There are several people who are retiring, and they're the only ones who know how to do certain things."

Disaster Planning is a Project
At its most basic, explained Ligon, "disaster prevention and recovery is a process of documenting what you do so that you can continue doing it well and so that you're not the only person who can do it, so that you have an alternate process that you can initiate when the standard process can no longer be implemented."

Off-Site Resource
TechSoup.org will shortly be issuing an updated edition of its highly practical guide, "The Resilient Organization: A Guide for Disaster Planning and Recovery," first published following Hurricane Katrina. Although TechSoup directs its technology assistance efforts at public libraries and small and medium nonprofits (many of which serve the education community), most of the advice covered by the guide is relevant for schools and districts too.


Of course, that poses two challenges for the typical education organization: Most ordinary mortals find documenting processes a mind-numbing activity. And districts are staffed to handle work on a daily basis, not for doing long-range planning. Yet, that's exactly what's required when formulating a disaster prevention and recovery plan. The process for developing that plan requires the same components as any project: a business champion in a position to push it through to completion and engaged stakeholders who will show up to the meetings ready to work. Getting the right people involved in the planning "is the hardest part," said Mangino.

Here's where an outside consulting firm can help make progress where a totally internal effort may flounder. "You can do it yourself," said Ligon. "Or you can have somebody come in and hold your hand. If somebody isn't there calling the meetings, bringing people together, taking the notes, and writing up the documents, your day to day work usually takes priority. And the hurricane comes."

Settling Priorities Requires All Hands
The problem of handing disaster planning over to IT people is that that job consists of advising on technology issues for the district and duties related to that. But a solid disaster plan needs to sort through all of the potential priorities for the district, and that can't happen until all stakeholders have weighed in. The results of that prioritization will be unique, which means that using a template disaster recovery plan purchased or downloaded online will have results that are too generic to be of real use for a particular school in an emergency.

Likewise, those priorities will evolve depending on what time of year the disaster happens. During the state assessment period for a district, that may be the top priority to address; or it might be the next week's payroll.

The plan should reflect those top priorities — typically, just a handful — with the assumption that "everything else could muddle along for a few days," Ligon said.

Go for Plan Redundancy
Once you've created it, don't be stingy with your plan. Put it on the intranet, keep it on paper, stick it on thumb drives and distribute those to key personnel, and post it to a cloud location. "It should be in every form, because you don't know what you're going to be able to put your hands on," said Mangino.

While you're at it, anything of a secure nature in the plan — passwords, details of the network layout, crucial private information — should be maintained separately, and the plan should have pointers to the people who know where that information is kept and how to access it. That too should be multi-modal.

Be Ready to Check in with Staff
Lo puts the job of communicating with staff at the very top of his priority list when planning what to do in a disaster. For reasons of morale and logistics, he said, it's important to spend a lot of upfront time keeping staff updated about what's going on. That includes making sure that everyone is safe. He also advises organizations to be ready to delegate work to the staff, because "people want to help."

That contact list of staff or others who could play a role in an emergency becomes gold. Like the disaster recovery plan itself, the list needs to be maintained in multiple locations, but online is probably optimal, because then you can maintain some measure of version control. People need to know they're working from the latest information. Lo recommends refreshing that quarterly as well as seasonally, just before the standard period for fire, tornado, or hurricane danger arrives for the year.

In both cases — for the plan itself and the staff contact list — Lo suggests granting access rights to board members and others who may travel outside of the area regularly. Then, he said, "if you need that information, you can call at some point and they can access it and tell you what it says."

Get Your Communications Strategy Sorted Out
Frequently, the first place families turn to get updates about their school is on the school Web site; yet often a Web site will go down during an emergency. Now social media plays an essential role too. "How do you make sure your constituents or the people you serve know you're still there? It's mostly going to be Facebook because Facebook will still be live," said Lo. In fact, a school's Facebook and Twitter accounts may generate more traffic than its Web site even during ordinary times; that was the case at Union Beach.

The advantages of setting up those social site accounts is that they serve as a redundant form of communication, plus they can be accessed through a smart phone. Should the Web site go down, those other forums can play a key role. And in non-emergency times, because it's a fairly simple coding process to set up feeds from the social networks to populate the home page of the Web site, those in charge of content for a school or district don't have to perform double duty; the Web updates can happen automatically.

Put Your Faith in the Cloud
Worried that stashing your vital records on the cloud and running your applications from hosted services is somehow more risky than doing it in house? Lo calls that the "driving-is-safer-than-flying" argument. When Google is down, it makes headlines, so we hear a lot about it, he explained. "But they're up 99.9 percent of the time." We only hear about it because it's such an unusual occurrence, akin to a plane falling out of the sky. The advantage of cloud services is that those vendors back up their operations, thereby delivering the redundancy any disaster recovery plan would seek.

Recently, the Fort Worth Independent School District purchased a new vendor-hosted student information system from Focus School Software. "It's interesting when you think about that all the problems that were solved immediately for those schools, including the disaster prevention and recovery," said Ligon. "They offloaded that on the vendor."

But even there caveats surface. As Lo noted, you have to make sure your operations can sustain an outage of a few days for any activities that will require access to offsite data and applications, since you may not be able to get an Internet connection to your service provider. For any information that the school might require immediately, you need to keep a copy of that closer to home, and in as many forms as possible.

On top of that, because school systems maintain private data protected under any number of compliance regulations, before signing with a provider, you have to be sure contractually that the data won't be hosted outside of the country. "Sometimes these hosting services aren't very straightforward about where the servers are located [or] where their backup systems are," said Ligon.

Just the Beginning
Preparing a comprehensive plan for disaster recovery doesn't end with these seven practices because, of course, an educational institution can be incredibly complex, as Ligon pointed out. "In a city, a school district runs one of the biggest transportation, one of the biggest food service, one of the biggest health, one of the biggest training, one of the biggest construction, printing, IT enterprises in a city. And I could go on and on. When you try to bring back up a school system, you're not just putting kids and teachers back in classrooms. You have to transport them and feed them and cool them."

A complete plan will address the inner workings of all of those needs — when and how to restore them, accommodate their "idiosyncrasies," identify those who know how to work with them, and figure out what to do if they turn out to be unavailable for the short or long term. Going through that exercise will help your organization and its people be better prepared, whether the next disaster turns out to be worthy of a hurricane category or a retirement party.