In the runup to what is already shaping up to be a very different 2020-2021 school year, there’s a lot of focus at all levels on what the school day will look like in the era of social-distancing, masks, perpetual disinfecting, and Covid-19. 

I hear a lot of discussion about how we can transport kids on school buses while maintaining social distancing. I hear discussion about one-way traffic in hallways and socially-distant lunches. I hear discussions about split sessions and hybrid-learning models. 

What I rarely hear, though, is a discussion about how these significant changes in operations will impact building and student safety and security. That absence and omission has triggered a mantra in my mind that I’ve relied on for nearly three decades in many different positions of responsibility: “Fly the plane.”

If you’re not a pilot, that phrase probably doesn’t mean much to you. Let me explain.

As a student and proponent of cross-disciplinary risk management, I often search for lessons in other professions and industries that can be used to identify problems and mitigate risk in my current role. 

As a pilot in the years before I entered law enforcement, I learned many valuable lessons that I’ve applied throughout my career. One of the most powerful came from the story of Eastern Airlines Flight 401.

In December of 1972, Flight 401 took off from JFK International Airport and had an uneventful flight and descent into Miami International’s airspace. Just minutes before landing in the dark Miami night, the plane inexplicably crashed into the ground.

The cause of the crash was shocking. Preoccupied with a landing gear indicator light that didn’t illuminate when they lowered the landing gear, all three pilots focused on checking the landing gear and assessing whether there was a serious problem with the gear or just an indicator bulb that had burned out. 

None of the pilots noticed that a (presumed) bump of the control yoke had disengaged the autopilot. None of the pilots noticed that the plane had departed from its altitude and had begun a slow descent. In the black of the night, no one noticed that the ground was getting closer. 

By the time the first officer noticed the change in altitude, it was too late. Flight 401 would strike the ground seconds later at over 200 MPH, killing 101 people. 

Three professional and accomplished pilots allowed a perfectly good airplane to descend into the ground. They were so focused and distracted by what turned out to be a bad light bulb, that no one was flying the plane.

To pilots, the phrase “fly the plane” is a powerful reminder that we can’t let distractions and stressors steal our attention away from a core task. No matter what the immediate challenge, problem, or crisis, solving it is worthless if the plane augers into the ground. 

As school administrators, security professionals, and public safety professionals, we can’t afford to let all of the Covid-inspired challenges and changes distract us from a core responsibility: providing a safe and secure environment in which our children can learn. 

To that end, there are a few questions we can ask to evaluate our focus in the midst of Covid-era hybrid and other return to school plans. Some examples:

  • How will split-sessions and/or changed schedules impact the flow of people in and out of your building? 
  • How will a presumed increase in parent drop-offs and pickups impact safety and risk at arrival and dismissal? 
  • With the increased attention given to changing education procedures, is adequate attention being given to the annual review and updating of security plans? 
  • Is there a plan to deal with attrition of employees with security responsibilities should an outbreak strike your district staff?
  • Is there a plan to account for and secure expensive and hard-to-procure PPE and disinfecting equipment?

The coming school year will be like none we’ve previously seen– full of challenges and distractions. Plans that would have seemed incomprehensible a year ago are rapidly taking shape. With every change in policy and procedure, consideration must be given to the associated impacts on safety and security.

As we deal with and adjust to this rapidly changing environment, it’s critically important that we guard against becoming so overtasked and overwhelmed with Covid that we forget about our core responsibility of keeping kids safe. Now more than ever, we must remember to fly the plane.  

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