SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education stopped short of mandating that public schools conduct annual parent-child reunification drills, but it will require them to publish reunification plans on school websites and distribute them annually during school registration.
The board on Thursday vigorously debated the proposal by board member Linda Hansen, who said conducting drills and publishing plans would give parents peace of mind about procedures if their child's school has to be evacuated in the event of an emergency.
But others argued that a statewide policy would encroach on local control of schools. Some opposed requiring schools to publish their policies on school websites.
Board member Brittney Cummins says she's concerned about the State School Board dictating how schools should communicate with stakeholders.
But others, like board member Kathleen Riebe said having the plan on a website means it could be readily accessed or linked to in tweets or Instagram posts to parents.
"I think it needs to be more dynamic and it needs to be readily available," Riebe said.
Sending a note home at the start of school just adds to the "100 pieces of paper" families receive at the start of school and she fears the information will get lost in the shuffle, she said.
The state code requires schools to publish minutes of school community council meetings. Riebe said a reunification plan is more important than that.
Board member Carol Lear agreed, noting school safety is an issue that should have "state weight behind it."
Parents frequently ask what the State School Board is doing to improve school safety, she said.
Placing a reunification plan on a school website and updating it annually is minimal requirement, Lear said.
The board rule will not go effect until the 2019-20 school year because of state statutes on implementing administrative rules.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said she would notify school districts and charter schools of the board rule immediately.
Hansen said she believes many school districts will voluntarily comply immediately.
Some schools already have published plans and conduct drills that call for parent participation.
During the drills, teachers walk students to predetermined, off-site venues where they gather in specific zones.
The parents travel to the site and meet their child or children in a specific order. Once all students are accounted for, the school releases children to parents who have photo identification. Parents are also permitted to pick up other people's children if they are an approved emergency contact.
While some parents who have undergone the drill say it is valuable, some board members worried aloud that it would be difficult for working parents to take part.
Hansen said the drill proposal "hasn't gone away completely. We have a task force that's working on putting together a state (school safety) plan, and they're looking at that also with law enforcement and the other people on that. I think it's something we'll probably revisit in the future."
In any event, the discussion and debate has opened school officials' eyes to the possibility of reunification drills, she said.
"I went to a school safety meeting with Granite School District and they had all of their principals there. They were talking about reunification drills then. As they become more aware, more people are going to say 'This is a good idea and I think we should do this,'" Hansen said.
Thursday's action was "a good first step," she said.
"Just having parents have the information at the first of the year, that's going to be cool for them. They're going to go, 'Wow. I've got information now I didn't have before' so I think it's going to give them peace of mind," Hansen said.