How will schools handle active-shooter drills in the age of COVID? No one knows

If or when something happens, social distancing "will take a backseat in that moment."
/ Source: TODAY

As schools plan to reopen in the next few months, parents still have plenty of questions: What will the school day look like? How effective will online teaching and learning options be? How safe will their children and their teachers be if they return to brick and mortar schools?

Teachers have some of the same questions, but from their perspective, there are even more details to consider — including how the new COVID-19 safety guidelines will affect other safety procedures like fire drills, tornado drills and active-shooter drills for their students. After all, it's hard to keep social distancing if you are supposed to be huddling in one designated corner of a classroom or a bathroom with 17 classmates and a teacher.

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High school English teacher Kristen Monzel told TODAY Parents that school safety protocol changes have not yet been addressed at her school. For the past 23 years, Monzel has taught at D'Evelyn Junior-Senior High School in Jefferson County, Colorado — the second-largest school district in that state and the same county that includes Columbine High School, where two teenage gunmen killed 13 people in 1999.

Despite the remaining uncertainties about how schools will reopen, Colorado teacher Kristen Monzel said she and daughter Madelyn, 15, are "so anxious to get back to school that we are ready to take all the risks."Kristen Monzel / Kristen Monzel

Though her school district is offering a full-time brick and mortar school option for students, "they indicated that we're going to have open doors and open bathrooms and more fresh air. Not sure how that's possible, given the usual protocols we have in place for school safety," Monzel said.

"I'm not sure yet how we're going to practice things like lockdowns and fire drills, which are mandated by the state," she added. "Certainly, we are going to have to talk directly with our kids about school safety now that it will clearly be compromised."

National school safety expert Kenneth S. Trump told TODAY Parents that although school districts know there will have to changes to safety drills and procedures this year, from what he can tell, most have not been able to determine yet what those changes will be. It is just one of many what he termed "unknown unknowns" school officials are grappling with while they try to plan their reopening amid the COVID-19 outbreak. He noted that weather, violence and other emergencies will not stop just because a major health crisis is happening at the same time.

"The reality is that social distancing is going to go out the window (in an emergency)," Trump said. "Your kids are going to have to remember those protective measures that they've been taught to do when there's an actual, real threat or an incident. Social distancing will take a backseat in that given moment."

Thankfully, he said, the vast majority of schools will not see a real life situation. Still, safety drills and preparedness need to continue in some format. "If we're holding some type of school, we have to have some reasonable level of preparation," he said, "but the underlying word there in bold and underlined is 'reasonable.'"

Trump, who has 35 years of experience in school safety, recommends that schools and school districts adopt a pragmatic approach that takes into account the amount of social and emotional anxiety that administrators, teachers and students already will be feeling under the weight of COVID-19-related expectations and changes.

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"The purpose of a drill is to train the brain and to get people to be able to think quickly when their brains are under stress," he said. "We don't want to go creating a whole new line of training with different types of stipulations now."

Trump said it would be more effective to verbally walk kids through the fire-drill and active-shooter procedures they already know without asking them to physically do it.

"You say, 'Look, you know what we would do in a real life situation, just as we have done in previous years. Here is what you would do: You are going to this corner, you would do this,'" he said. "But with the trauma, emotion and anxiety that kids and teachers will be bringing in to school anyway, it's stressful enough. You can get the point across with verbal reminders and refreshing."

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Monzel has a similarly pragmatic perspective on how her school likely will handle safety.

"It is clear that the safety protocols this next year are going to conflict with all that we've been working to implement since Columbine, but I do think for this coming year, the focus must switch to keeping us safe from the virus," she said. "I haven't seen any mention of how we're going to continue to insulate our schools against violence. I suppose all we can do is once again ask our students to be vigilant about staying aware and reporting suspicious behaviors."

Even with all the uncertainty and the unanswered questions, Monzel said that as both a teacher and the mom of a high school sophomore, she is eager to find a way to make in-person school work again.

"Trying to get through the curriculum remotely almost did me (and us) in," she said. "We are so anxious to get back to school that we are ready to take all the risks."