Q: I’m refreshing my memory on the new regulations regarding emergency safety drills to take effect during the 2020-2021 school year based on the TEA’s adoption of 19 Texas Administrative Code §103.129. Does the COVID-19 pandemic impact these emergency drills or their effective start date?
A: No, not really. All districts and open-enrollment charter schools are still required to comply with the rules for emergency safety drills, adopted by the TEA, which requires a minimum of eight (8) drills per semester or sixteen (16) drills per year. This, they will have to do while adhering to social distancing protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. A district’s specific guidance regarding best practices specifically for evacuation fire drills directly depends on whether your district or open-enrollment charter school has a local fire marshal.
In 2019, the 86th Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 11, which implemented new school safety measures for public schools and open-enrollment charter schools. Senate Bill 11 and Section 371.114 of the Texas Education Code drastically changed policies regarding threat assessment, parental involvement, mental health support, safety planning, and security personnel. In collaboration with the Texas Safety School Center, the TEA adopted guidance on safety drills from the above-mentioned statutory sources, now codified as 19 Texas Administrative Code §103.1029. The new regulation, which became effective on September 6, 2020, establishes six (6) categories for emergency safety drills, which are mandated to begin in the 2020-2021 school year. Districts and open-enrollment charter schools are required to perform the following exercises with a minimum corresponding frequency: 1) secure (lockout), once per year; 2) lockdowns, twice per year; 3) evacuations, once per year; 4) shelter-in-place for hazmat, once per year; 5) shelter for severe weather, once per year; and 6) fire evacuation drills, twice per semester, for a total four times per year. Districts and open-enrollment charter schools must also consult with local fire marshals and comply with recommendations. If a fire marshal does not exist for your district, defer to national standards for fire evacuation drills.
How can my District implement the newly mandated emergency drills while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic? In September 2020, the Texas School Safety Center updated previous guidance on safety drills and published the “Drill Guidance for School District Administrators with COVID-19 Considerations”. In this advisory document, the Texas School Safety Center addresses additional precautions educational entities may employ during the pandemic, in three separate phases, before, during, or after an emergency drill. Overall, in all three phases of emergency drills, staff and students must practice physical distancing of at least six feet, wear masks, and follow proper hygiene, including handwashing and disinfecting surfaces, to the extent possible. Specifically, before a scheduled drill, it is suggested that administrators consider how to incorporate the participation of staff who are working remotely as well as students who are participating in synchronous and asynchronous remote learning, incorporating personal protective equipment (PPE), and including students with functional needs. Next, in addition to the COVID-19 considerations before a drill, administrations should ensure the distribution of PPE for use during the drill, and the delegation of sufficient personnel to ensure compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures. And, lastly, after a drill has occurred, administrators should conduct an After-Action Review (AAR) meeting remotely, as well as ensure that surfaces (i.e. doors that were used as part of the drill) are properly disinfected and sanitized, promote handwashing after the conclusion of the drill/exercise for all participants, and remember to notify remote-working staff that the exercise has concluded. The above-mentioned practices, though not exhaustive, guide administrators in preparing for and conducting emergency drills during the pandemic.
The regulations do not distinguish between campuses and other district buildings. As such, it appears the Texas Legislature intended to mandate emergency safety drills not only for the instructional campus but also for district facilities. Districts must continue to communicate the goals of the mandated safety drills and to promote compliance with remote and on-campus staff. In the event of an actual emergency that undoubtedly requires greater expedience, COVID-19 mitigative measures should not be abandoned. The safety of students and staff is paramount; administrators must assess the exigency of the circumstances alongside the safety measures that have been implemented solely to limit the spread of COVID-19. For additional information on emergency safety drills, please refer to https://txssc.txstate.edu/tools/tde-toolkit/drilling. For specific questions or guidance, please contact your local school attorney.