Heath Hendren is IASB assistant director/communications.

What makes natural disasters so difficult to plan for is their level of unpredictability. Dealing with unknown or unforeseen conditions may start with the initial event in first response, but continues as consequences compound during the recovery period.

All school districts have policies in place to deal with disasters and tragedies, it natural or man-made. However, it is impossible to fully plan for the unknown. Responses will necessitate specialization and adaptation. Transportation, volunteer coordination, charity distribution, insurance documentation, and as determining when students should return to class become the responsibility of school leaders.

When an EF4 tornado struck the town of Washington in November 2013, few could have anticipated the scope of destruction. At a time when most school districts were preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday recess, the only things expected were tournament games, the first signs of winter, and the Joint Annual Conference, which would be held six days later.

The Washington community has four public school districts: three elementary and one high school. Three were significantly impacted by the devastation left by the twister.

One of the first challenges facing school officials was deciding when students could return. The decision depended on many factors: the well-being of the students, faculty and their families; building safety and infrastructure concerns; and how to physically get so many displaced children to and from school.

 “That was the toughest decision,” said Jim Dunnan, former superintendent of Washington High School District 308. “It’s a very delicate balance. The reality is that school gave quite a few kids a place to go.”

Washington High School reopened just three days after the tornado struck. On the first day back, 750 of the district’s 1,200 students were in attendance. The district imposed a one-hour late start because of the logistics of transporting children to school. Dunnan said it was important to ensure that the actual building and surrounding grounds were safe and secure, utilities were functioning properly, travel routes were manageable, and that school transportation was not interfering with cleanup and recovery efforts.

“By returning to school, it allowed us to identify those students who lost a home in the disaster,” said Dunnan. “Also, we didn’t jump right back into academics. It was important to let classmates socialize and see their friends.”

The two elementary schools most impacted took a little more time in ushering younger students back to school. District 52 reopened one week after the tornado struck. Central District 51, where school facilities required repairs, needed a little more than two weeks to reconvene.

All three schools were prepared with onsite counselors to help with the transition. One-on-one and group counseling allowed students to share their experiences in a comfortable, secure setting. Washington Township Special Education Cooperative arranged for Tazewell and Menard County school districts to send additional counselors to the impacted areas.

Central District 51 held a teacher institute day prior to students returning to allow counselors to meet with staff and prepare them to meet the needs of students when classes resumed. District 51 kept additional counselors in place throughout that first week, and a volunteer organization brought in therapy dogs to help accommodate students.

“Students were happy to return to school, to see that their friends and teachers were okay, and to return to a normal routine,” said Central District 51 Superintendent Chad Allaman, who lost his own home in the tornado.

Superintendent John Tignor of Washington District 52, whose home was also destroyed, said that it was important to give students a place to see and speak to each other after facing such a devastating event.

“We needed to give students a chance to re-acclimate. It was important to provide a routine and something normal for them,” he said. “Being back at school and the routine brings back a sense of normalcy.”

But deciding the date for students to return is only a part of the process. Officials must still be able to transport students, a critical factor for the Washington-area districts. While bus fleets were not damaged by the storm, many students were displaced and living in as many as 11 different communities.

School officials determined the best and most efficient option was to coordinate a joint effort among the three districts to get students to and from school, no matter where they were relocated. As stipulated in the federal McKinney- Vento Homeless Assistance Act, schools must provide transportation for students who are left homeless.

All three affected districts passed resolutions to develop a coordinated transportation plan, which called for disciplined bookkeeping and an early start to the day for many. They pooled extra buses and assigned each district an area of responsibility for transporting displaced students. District 51 served the western region to Peoria and Dunlap; District 52 sent buses to communities toward the north and east such as Mackinaw, Roanoke and Metamora; District 308 transported students from the south towards Pekin and Morton. This meant that students from different districts rode the same bus. They had to be picked up and dropped off at the various schools, and students of all ages rode together.

The unique transportation program worked well for Washington schools, because the federal act allows transportation costs to be split between the district in which the student was physically living and the school the student was attending. In this situation there were three districts that would also split the 50 percent share. This made costs much more manageable for the Washington schools, but also required keeping accurate, up-to-date records in order to determine which other districts would be billed for the additional 50 percent portion.

Because it was impossible to predict when those who lost their homes would be able to return to reside in Washington, the districts also extended the exemption provided for in the McKinney- Vento Act for a year, allowing the longer-term displaced students to continue at their school as in-district residents.

Ensuring students are taken care of in the aftermath of such a disaster is the first priority. But this disaster also impacted staff and faculty. These individuals have families and homes to attend to as well.

Washington High School created “disaster days” for employees, giving them additional flexibility in their schedules to attend to repairing or rebuilding their homes. Only a few staff members took this leave time, so the total cost to the district was under $1,000.

Central District 51 had a similar program. The board of education, including two members who lost their own homes, supported relaxed procedures for additional paid leave for staff to attend to the repair or rebuild of their homes. The Central board also approved $1,000 disaster relief payments for teaching and non-certified staff whose homes were lost or damaged by the storm. A total of 21 staff members took advantage of the disaster relief payments at a cost of $21,000. The administrators declined the payments.

The Washington districts also discovered the need for a system to distribute donations and charity to affected students and families. With hundreds of thousands of dollars raised and families facing difficult circumstances, it was important to disperse the needed funds and resources in a fair and timely manner.

District 308 board member Tim Custis said that dealing with the outpouring of support is something that people don’t think about until faced with this type of situation. “It is important to develop a process fairly quickly because you want to distribute funds, materials and help to those in need quickly and efficiently,” said Custis.

Joe Sander, assistant superintendent and business manager for District 308, described the distribution process.

“The board set up a relief assistance grant program and created a Tornado Grant Assistance Application to disperse the money. Then the funds were distributed in categories,” Sander said.

The first round of grants of just under $1,000 was dispersed to all displaced students and staff on Dec. 20, 2013. The second round of grants was distributed in the beginning months of 2014 to those who were impacted but not displaced. The district is ­­in the process of issuing a third round of funds that will likely be given in a similar manner as the first round.

In addition to donations, volunteer efforts also played an important role in the recovery. Volunteers proved very useful for clean-up responsibilities in the aftermath of the disaster. The amount of debris scattered throughout the city of Washington and the school grounds was overwhelming, but the effort of volunteers was able to reduce the clean-up costs for both the city and school districts.

Superintendent Allaman praised the efforts of the people who came to help after the disaster. “We had wonderful volunteer support when we called for a clean-up day for our facilities and grounds,” he said.

Tignor said one of the unexpected problems his District 52 ran into was debris clean-up on their sports fields. Volunteers played an important role. “We had had limited success. Some equipment worked well, some did not. The best way to really get it cleaned up was old-fashion labor,” he said.

Other recommendations from Washington’s experience include assigning someone to work with volunteers, and to begin documenting the assistance volunteers provide from the very beginning. Tracking who is helping and how much time volunteers are contributing can be useful if the district is eligible for federal assistance, because volunteer hours can count toward matching funds.

Documentation also proves to be important for insurance purposes. Before and after pictures are helpful assets when recording damage. Detailed records of school property proved important in Washington’s case. Because the majority of the tornado’s damage was to residential homes, a significant amount of school property in students’ possession was lost. Books, technology devices and even sports gear and equipment needed to be replaced. Having quality records of those items increased the chance of insurance coverage covering the lost property.

“Our school’s insurance did a great job. We had approximately $29,000 in claims,” said District 308’s Sander. “We documented all of it, made a list and submitted it to our insurance. Insurance covered a lot of the lost property that students had at their homes.”

With policies in place to ensure the safety of students and staff when there is a threat of a natural disaster while school is in session, Washington school officials recommend considering long-term impacts.

“Planning is important and it is critical to have detailed plans in place in the event a disaster strikes when school is in session,” Allaman, of District 51, said. “The lesson that resonates long term is the importance of having a contingency plan for housing students in the event schools are destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. School district officials should take stock of space that is up to code, in close proximity to their district and available to house students on an interim basis until temporary housing can be installed. To that end, it is equally important to have contingency plans in place to secure and install temporary housing to educate students while school buildings are being repaired or rebuilt.”

Although none of the districts reported policy changes in the wake of the tornado, what has become clear in the months after the tragedy is the importance of being prepared and the ability to adapt to situations that students, families and an entire community will face. Having open lines of communication and a working relationship among administrators, board members, and city and township officials is critical toward ensuring a stable recovery.

“You can never be fully prepared for a disaster like the November 17, 2013 tornado,” said Allaman.

As Dunnan pointed out, “Dealing with a disaster like this is about the human side of things. It’s about helping families and getting people back on their feet. It gave people a chance to pause and reflect, and reassess what’s important.”