Oct 31 2006

Minimize School Disruptions with a Disaster Contingency Plan

School districts must include instructional continuity in their disaster contingency plans to minimize the disruption of teaching and learning.

The saying that lightning never strikes twice in the same place was proven wrong in 2005 when two major hurricanes struck Louisiana, devastating cities and closing down school districts. Careful planning before a disaster occurs can help districts restore instructional programs and quickly return to some degree of normalcy.

Most IT and business plans focus on data recovery and restoration of system availability. Few school districts give similar planning priority to instructional continuity — the business of a school system.

Chris O’Neal, educational consultant at the University of Virginia, says, “Technology is the one thing that connects all curricular areas and can ensure that the learning process is uninterrupted, thanks to anytime, anywhere availability. Even if we’re physically displaced for some reason, we’re generally still able to communicate, share information and keep the teaching and learning process running.”

So ho w do you plan for the unthinkable? Most of the needed resources are already available in many districts. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to leverage them appropriately.


When planning, first identify digital equivalents for your critical, print-based instructional materials. Most textbook manufacturers can provide electronic versions of texts, either Web- or CD-based. Some publishers make content available on the Web as a textbook supplement or replacement. In the event of a disaster, these Web-based materials are readily available.

The second step is to acquire and install at least one classroom set of as many electronic textbooks as possible. Several publishers offer electronic curricula or integrated learning systems. Many of these provide complete coverage of grade-level subjects and can continue instruction for displaced students by providing anytime, anywhere access to curricular resources.

During planning, contact publishers and make them aware of your recovery plan. Publishers often have specific conditions for transferring a license from one school site to another, which might limit your district’s ability to transfer these licenses to the schools where they’re needed. Publishers are usually willing to work out some arrangement, but the details must be planned ahead of time.

Also, test the digital materials in the wireless labs that will serve as your portable digital classrooms in the event of an emergency. It’s important to make sure your new classroom setup is functional before a disaster occurs.


In the wake of Hurricane Rita, Sheryl Abshire, administrative coordinator of technology for Calcasieu Parish Schools in Louisiana, maintained the instructional process and kept the Lake Charles, La., community in touch with its schools.

“During Hurricane Rita and during the 34 days the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools were closed, principals, teachers, students and the community were able to stay connected using our district’s learning portal,” Abshire says. “This natural disaster could have turned into a learning disaster, but teachers using Calcasieu’s eLearning courses were able to sustain learning even though their students were all over the country.

“Many students were in locations that had Internet access — family or friends’ homes in other parts of the country, community shelters and libraries. Some used family notebooks to go to coffee shops or other locations with access. The students who stayed connected online with their teachers were students who already were engaged in online activities as part of their classes, so they logically went online to see if they could stay connected during the time of the evacuation.”

If students are relocated to an alternative site, traditional printed materials may not be available in sufficient quantities. But mobile technology can deliver electronic resources to keep the instructional program alive. For example, portable digital classrooms that are used in other areas of a district are an excellent resource that can be diverted to the alternate site to serve displaced students.

Ideally, a district would identify “hot site” schools that would house students in case of a disaster. It also would identify the items needed for a portable digital classroom. If curriculum resources are not already installed in the labs, technical support personnel should have them configured for rapid installation in the labs in the event of a disaster.

A disaster recovery plan should also include provisions for deploying technical support personnel to set up the portable digital classrooms and to assist the faculty.

One advantage of such preparation is that the high-quality digital content is always available to students — not just when a disaster hits home. Harry Ingalls, assistant superintendent for operations at Carroll ISD near Dallas, says, “We’re involved in the development of an instructional management system that, when it’s fully matured, should be able to bridge the gap when faced with situations of public disaster or crisis. Our goal is to be able to provide ‘anytime, anywhere’ instructional services, since this will be delivered via the Web.”

Because of her direct experience with Hurricane Rita, Abshire is passionate about planning for instructional recovery. “Recovering from a disaster,” she says, “requires massive planning well in advance. Districts that believe it will never happen to them are fooling themselves. It takes only one disaster to destroy years of planning and implementation, not to mention the destruction of [public] confidence in the district’s technology systems and processes.”


Make lists of items that may need to be replaced to maintain instructional integrity after a disaster. Buildings, classrooms and servers probably should be on your list. Identify electronic resources already available in the district that could be used to replace lost or destroyed materials. Also identify digital equivalents that you’ll need to purchase or build.

Acquire Web- or CD-based equivalents for classroom materials. Make arrangements with publishers for digital classroom materials.

Test the electronic materials on the wireless labs that will serve as portable digital classrooms in an emergency.

Identify schools in the district that could house displaced students. Set up cooperative plans with other districts outside your home territory in case the entire school district is affected.

Plan backup and offsite storage strategies to safeguard all valuable data. If your district isn’t wireless, plan to go wireless.

Bill Morrison is director of technology for the Rapides Parish School District in Alexandria, La. He’s also the project coordinator for the Regional Teaching, Learning and Technology Center.