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Active shooter drills are still required for schools but look different during COVID-19

Posted at 2:05 PM, Nov 23, 2020

This year, the number of school shootings in the United States has dropped tremendously because of the pandemic.

According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, there has only been one shooting inside a school building since March; an accidental discharge of a firearm inside North Forney High School in Forney, Texas that happened before pandemic shutdowns began.

It may be one silver lining in a year many wish to forget.

But just because numbers are down, does not mean schools are not still prioritizing active shooter drills.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a public advocacy group, 95 percent of K-12 schools implement active shooter drills, but the number can vary by state. For instance, in New York State, schools are required to have four lockdown drills per year, whereas in New Jersey the requirement is two.

Since the pandemic started, most states have required those same number of drills despite some students choosing to learn from home, in-person restrictions, and social distancing.

“We had to redesign the entire drill,” said John McDonald, executive director of security and emergency management at JeffCo Public Schools in Colorado. “We had to redesign what it looked like. How do you socially distance when you’re locking down?”

McDonald laid the blueprint for school safety across the country when he was brought in by the JeffCo Public School District to implement new safety measures after the Columbine School Shooting in 1999.

In the COVID-19 world, students in his school district are now learning about active shooter drills through a three-minute video presentation he helped design.

“We have kids learning [these active shooter lessons] since kindergarten,” said McDonald. “So, this helps supplement that and reinforce that muscle memory.”

In the Syracuse School District in New York, however, the drills are a little different than in Colorado.

“I think that there’s always a need to balance the safety of the potentially very worst day with the challenges of safety and student well-being that schools face every single day,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, a criminal justice professor at SUNY-Oswego.

Schildkraut helped the Syracuse school district redesign its plans following COVID-19. Instead of the normal drills, where a full class might huddle together out of sight of windows, Schildkraut says students are now broken up into smaller groups of four students to help reduce close exposure to one another during drills.

She says those groups also practice the drills on different days to keep things efficient.

Schildkraut and McDonald agree that since the pandemic, the drills focus on threat assessment. In day-to-day school functions, COVID-19 is the primary threat to student safety, so social-distancing rules are implemented even during drills. But if an emergency arises, they say that becomes the more imminent threat so that will be treated as the priority, even if it means social distancing cannot be followed.

“If we have to go into a lockdown while we’re in school, even in the COVID world, we’re going to go into lockdown because that’s the threat that’s in front of us in that moment in time,” said McDonald.