What do tornado safety drills look like in the age of coronavirus?

Lauren Fox
·4 min read

With the United States anticipating more tornadoes than normal this spring and summer, schools are preparing staff and students with safety drills. However, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the need for social distancing has come to the forefront, forcing school administrators to make adjustments to their drills.

Tornadoes occur in the U.S. year-round, but according to AccuWeather Senior Storm Warning Meteorologist Phil Warren, they begin to pick up in frequency from April into June. Tornadoes are possible in any state in the country, but they are most common in the Plains, Midwest and Southeast.

Many schools in tornado-prone regions practice tornado drills in case a twister breaks out during school hours.

The superintendent for Topeka Public Schools in Topeka, Kansas, told AccuWeather's Emmy Victor that in past years they have been able to conduct drills with the entire student body in the gym, which also functions as a tornado shelter.

Because of social distancing requirements, the entire school is not able to run the drill together anymore. Instead, each grade is taking turns practicing the drill in the gym and kneeling 6 feet apart during it.

Tornado safety drills in Brunswick County Schools are held in the school hallways during a typical year, but amid the pandemic, the principal for the school told AccuWeather's Emmy Victor that this year drills are being held in the classrooms. (Brunswick County Schools)

In addition, many students at the school are still attending class through remote learning, so the school has put a plan in place to help them prepare for any severe weather outbreaks as well.

"What's been interesting is even seeing teachers with remote students saying, 'Find your spot. Where are you gonna be?'" Topeka Public Schools Superintendent Tiffany Anderson said, pointing out that the school system has 3,000 students who are attending remotely.

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In Leland, North Carolina, students also have adapted to social distancing during tornado safety drills. Rather than hold drills in the hallways of the building like they do during a typical year, Brunswick County Schools have instead decided to conduct the drill with students remaining in their individual classrooms.

The National Weather Service recommends school officials avoid using hallways with windows or that are straight the entire way through as tornado shelters. (Brunswick County Schools)

According to The National Weather Service (NWS), small interior rooms, such as offices and bathrooms, offer the best protection in the event of a severe weather outbreak during school hours.

Interior hallways can be a good option as well, but people should be aware that they can turn into wind tunnels during severe weather and debris can be sent flying through them. Hallways that zig-zag are safer as they are less likely to become wind tunnels during severe weather episodes.

Hallways with any glass windows are not a good option either. The NWS warns to avoid doors leading to the outside as best as possible.

During severe weather situations, classrooms with large windows or classrooms closest to the building's exterior are the ones to avoid the most. In addition, the NWS says gymnasiums, auditoriums and cafeterias should be avoided as well due to their large span ceilings, as those types of sprawling rooms are more prone to ceiling failure.

Some schools, however, have gyms specifically designed to double as severe weather shelters, and many schools are even adding additions to their buildings to create shelters that double as educational spaces.

"As far as schools go, many of the newer schools in tornado-prone areas are being built with FEMA shelters, which sometimes can be a larger structure, such as a gym or other larger room," Warren said. "Gyms and cafeterias that are not certified as safe rooms should be avoided."

Newer schools in tornado-prone areas are often being built with FEMA shelters to ensure safety for students, faculty and staff amid a severe weather outbreak. (Brunswick County Schools)

When picking a shelter, school officials should also consider its location in the building, and how long it will take students to reach it from their classrooms. The NWS says all students should be safely inside the shelter within three minutes.

In addition, the size of the classroom is important, as well as its capacity to accommodate any individualized needs students may have.

"For those schools that are not equipped with FEMA-type safe rooms, seeking shelter in the lowest level of the building, away from windows and exterior walls is ideal," Warren said.

Officials from both school districts stressed to Victor that safety is the number one priority. While social distancing is a concern for the drills, in the event of an actual tornado emergency sheltering from the storm to ensure safety may take priority over pandemic protocols.

Additional reporting by Emmy Victor.

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