Global pandemic or not, Florida public schools must each complete four fire drills this year. (Christopher Cann/WUFT News)

Alachua County Schools Continue Fire Drills Amid COVID-19

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Despite COVID-19 pushing half of Alachua County public school students online, fire drills are still on the agenda.

Like every school district in Florida, Alachua County schools must each complete four fire drills – the first occurring in the initial 30 days of classes – according to an executive order that Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis signed in August.

Local schools are using a combination of zoned evacuations – which allow one area to evacuate at a time – and evacuations by grade level, according to Fire Official for Alachua County Schools David Mathis. Because each school has a different layout, evacuation plans vary.

Mathis and individual school principals planned drills around Patronis’ order.

The executive order rolls back the requirement to evacuate the entire student body at once and allows schools to evacuate one building or area at a time. The area students are taken during a fire drill may not be the same place if an actual emergency occurs. But faculty must educate students on the area to be used in the event of a real fire.

So far, Lawton M. Chiles, Lake Forest, Myra Terwilliger, Norton and Carolyn Beatrice Parker are the only Alachua County public schools to complete their required fire drill for September, according to Mathis. The remaining schools have until the end of the month to conduct their first drill.

The executive order also applies to private institutions. Cornerstone Academy conducted its first fire drill on Aug. 26. Headmaster David Leino said the entire student body evacuated at the same time but used multiple routes in stairwells and hallways to ensure social distancing.

After four fire drills, schools can opt to begin fire safety education with the help from local fire departments, according to the executive order. Mathis said some schools may choose to continue running drills after completing the required amount.

The main dilemma in planning fire drills during COVID-19 lies in the balancing act between keeping students socially distant and ensuring the drills remain effective in the chance that a fire does occur, Mathis said.

“With COVID-19, we are trying to do this safely,” he said. “The schools are doing a great job; they know their schools, they know their people, they know their students, and so I think we are in a pretty good place.”

By mid-September, roughly half of the 25,783 students in Alachua County public schools were enrolled in brick and mortar classes. Another 11,000 or so were enrolled through Digital Academy and just under 2,000 are in Alachua eSchool, according to District Spokesperson Jackie Johnson.

Since only half of the students are enrolled in brick and mortar classes, executing safe, socially distant fire drills is easier than it would be if buildings were at their normal capacity, Mathis said.

States like California, Indiana, Nevada, Ohio, Kentucky and Texas are conducting fire drills virtually.

Mathis said people are creatures of habit and it is better to know exactly what to do in case of a fire through in-person drills rather than learning in a virtual format.

Schools are also conducting lockdown, hurricane, tornado and bomb drills. Casey Hamilton, the district’s security chief, said drills will be presented to students both virtually and in-person through the ALICE program.

ALICE – an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate – instructs students and faculty through videos in which local law enforcement explain what to do in different emergency scenarios. For students enrolled in brick and mortar classes, the videos are paused frequently to allow teachers to go into further detail.

All Alachua County public schools are required to conduct ALICE training in the first week of classes for both the fall and spring semesters, per a 2018 statewide mandate.

“In this time with this virus, we are all just trying to be as safe as we can with our drills and certainly not place and undue exposure on the students or the staff,” Hamilton said.

The running total of COVID-19 cases in the Alachua County Public School District since Aug. 17 is 33, according to the school board’s COVID-19 dashboard.

About Christopher Cann

Christopher is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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