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6 Need to Know Tips for Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP)

Cari Struble
April 20, 2020

As we continue to experience the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic across the nation, many school administrators are starting to feel a sense of helplessness from the lack of control the government shut down orders have caused. One way to help combat the sense of helplessness is to take control over how your school is handling the COVID-19 pandemic by starting to prepare for your re-opening and recovery.

So how do you prepare to re-open and recover from the extended closures and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?

For starters, you could update your Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP). Having a good continuity of operations plan goes a long way in providing your district and schools with a roadmap to navigate the difficult times. For many though knowing how to get started with your pandemic plans can feel as though you're building the plane while it's in flight. And that’s okay because it's essentially what you're doing.

Here are six things you should consider when updating your continuity of operations plans:

  1. Form a collaborative planning team
  2. Avoid blind spots in your plan
  3. Don’t borrow someone else's plan
  4. Include a timeline
  5. Appoint a Public Information Officer (PIO)
  6. Don't confuse your COOP with a school emergency plan

Form a collaborative planning team
No one person can build out a continuity of operations plan by themselves. Instead, start by breaking the continuity of operations planning process into easy to manage sections that can be delegated to different members of your planning team. For example, give the person in charge of education services the continuity of student learning section, someone from your finance team should handle the continuity of payroll portion, and your emergency manager should be completing the continuity of core operations.

Avoid blind spots in your plan
We've all heard the saying "We've always done it like that" and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but when it comes to building out your continuity of operations plans, it's important to look at the situation from all angles. Including a good mix of backgrounds on your planning team is a great way to avoid blind spots. Furthermore, when picking your staff for your planning team, keep in mind that job titles don't matter. For example, you might want the Director of Transportation to participate, but this individual might be too busy or wants to appoint someone else who is better suited.

Don't borrow someone else's plan
Using plans found on the internet is ineffective and could result in liability risks. Plus, a plan that someone puts together in California is not going to be helpful to someone in Illinois. Each continuity of operations plan must be specifically written for your school or district to ensure they account for all of the nuances affecting your location. If you need guidance when building out your continuity of operations plan, it's perfectly acceptable to leverage a template from FEMA or REMS, but keep in mind a template is not a plan. Lastly, if you still need assistance even with a template, it's okay to bring someone in from outside your organization to assist or write your plans, just make sure the individual is familiar with education.

Include a timeline
When building out your continuity of operations plans, you should be including the four phases of activation:

  1. Readiness and preparedness pre-incident.
  2. Activation and relocation, 0-12 hours in the incident aftermath.
  3. Continuity of operation, 12 hours to 30 days post-incident, extended as needed.
  4. Reconstitution, return to normalcy and termination of the COOP.

Within your "continuity of operations" section, you'll need to include a timeline. Keep in mind that the timeline you come up with might not be realistic, but it's something to start with, and it can always be changed or modified if needed. Avoid using terms like "indefinite" within this section of your continuity of operations plan. Because what is "indefinite"? It’s an abstract term, and your continuity of operations plan requires an actual date.

Appoint a Public Information Officer (PIO)
Even though the superintendent is the face of the event, you still need someone to be putting the communication plan in place for local agencies (police, health department, emergency management, etc.) and families. Each of these communication plans should be specific to each group and in as close to real-time as possible. For more information on the roles and responsibilities associated with public information officers, check out FEMA's IS-0029.a: Public Information Officer Awareness course.

Don't confuse your COOP with a school emergency plan
Continuity of operation plans should supplement your school emergency plan. For example, your school emergency plans should be around 250 pages and during a situation like COVID-19, you're not going to have time to pull that out. Your continuity of operations plan, on the other hand, is very manageable and can easily be broken down into different sections and given out.

No one knows how long it's going to take for us to return to "normal," if we ever do. But education isn't going anywhere, and you need to figure out how best to move forward. To learn more about pandemic response, continuity of operations planning, and preparing to return to school, be sure to watch our on-demand events with Jeff Kaye, President of School Safety Operations.

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