When Tornadoes Loom, School Officials Often Face A Critical Decision

Parents and school boards debate whether pupils should be let out of school early in bad weather or kept inside to stay safe.

<p><strong>Homes are damaged after a tornado swept through Coralville, Iowa, Friday, March 31, 2023. RYAN FOLEY/AP PHOTO</strong></p>

When the largest tornado outbreak to affect the country since 2021 struck the Midwest and Southeast on March 31, 2023, one Iowa school district faced a tough decision: send the students home early or keep them in the building to shelter.

School officials chose the latter.

“Many are used to schools closing or sending students home early to avoid travel during winter weather, but when it comes to severe weather, the risks and considerations are much different,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Jake Sojda said. “However, it all boils down to one question: Where are people the safest?”

The question of if schools should release students early ahead of severe weather or keep them in the building to shelter is a topic of debate among parents and school boards. In the case of the Pekin Community School District in Jefferson County, Iowa, the reasoning behind the decision was a matter of keeping students in a place where adults would be present.

“Keep in mind, some of our students would be sent home to an empty residence with an early dismissal so we determined it was in their best interest to keep them safe at school where they could take shelter with adults,” the district’s superintendent Derek Philips said in a letter.

The Pekin Community School District did not respond when AccuWeather reached out for comment.

There is no “one size fits all” solution or a universal answer, according to AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter. Still, there are various considerations that can create a safer environment for students and faculty when severe weather strikes.

“We know that people are safest in well-built structures with appropriate safe shelter areas as opposed to being in cars or buses,” Porter said. “Additionally, it is critical for all schools to have a clearly articulated tornado safety place, with designated safe shelter areas which have been confirmed by structural engineers, and that all students and teachers know how to get to this area if they have but minutes to do so in an actual emergency.”

In some instances, he added, school districts who elect to dismiss students safely well in advance of the storm threat might consider keeping their buildings staffed for students and families who do not have suitable tornado-safe areas at home to utilize the tornado shelter areas at the school if threatening weather approaches their community.

While it wasn’t included as a reason for the Pekin Community School District’s decision, school buildings are also generally safer to shelter in than some homes, such as mobile or manufactured homes.

In the March 31-April 1 tornado outbreak, at least 10 of the 26 direct fatalities across the South and Midwest occurred in mobile homes, while only four occurred in foundation-based homes, according to NOAA. Four deaths were recorded in Illinois – two in foundation-based homes and two in manufactured or mobile homes.

About 20 million people in the United States, or about 6% of the population, live in manufactured homes, according to federal data, yet when looking at direct tornado-related fatalities from 2010 to 2022, about one-third, or 354 fatalities, occurred in a mobile home.

From the start of 2023 to late April, nearly 40% of all tornado fatalities have occurred in a mobile home, according to data from NOAA.

A resident looks through the piles of debris, insulation, and home furnishings to see if anything is salvageable at a mobile home park in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, Saturday, March 25, 2023. ROGELIO V. SOLIS/AP PHOTO

Both NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have recommended that residents of mobile and manufactured homes shelter in places other than their homes before storms with tornadoes hit.

“If a school can reliably provide shelter for all students in the event of a severe weather threat, that’s almost always going to ensure the lowest overall risk to everyone involved,” Sojda said. “There’s no guessing how safe shelter at an individual’s home might be, there’s no threat of being caught in severe weather on the road unexpectedly, there’s no risk of students having to deal with executing an emergency plan at home alone if parents or guardians are at work, and the overall infrastructure around a school is generally going to be easier in the situation an emergency response is needed.”

During the same severe weather outbreak at the end of March and the start of April, a school district located in central Illinois, the Washington District 50 Schools, decided to dismiss students at Beverly Manner and John L. Hensey schools early.

“We have a large number of families who are planning to travel this evening, the forecast is calling for some very severe weather conditions, and there are many members of our community expressing their anxiety tied to their experiences during the 2013 tornado,” Superintendent Chad Allaman said in an update ahead of the storms.

The tornado he referred to was likely the EF4 twister that swept through Washington, Illinois, where the school district is located, as a part of the Nov. 17, 2013, tornado outbreak. On that day, 75 tornadoes touched down across seven states, 25 of which tore through Illinois, making it the fourth-largest outbreak in the state since National Weather Service (NWS) records began in 1950. Of those 25 tornadoes, 14 were at least EF2 strength. Another two were of EF4 strength, and another three were EF3 tornadoes.

The tornado that impacted Washington had maximum winds of 190 mph – the strongest November tornado on record in the state, according to the NWS. The outbreak claimed eight lives, all in Illinois. According to the weather service, debris from the tornado was found 122 miles away in Chicago.

At one homestead in Washington, “the outbuildings and barns sustained varying degrees of damage, but the homestead was totally destroyed with only the foundation remaining,” according to notes from the NOAA Storm Events Database. This is where the two direct fatalities occurred.

IN FILE – In this Nov. 18, 2013, file photo, a man walks through what is left of a neighborhood in Washington, Illinois, a day after a tornado ripped through the central Illinois town. Washington was among the hardest-hit areas. ARMANDO SANCHEZ/AP PHOTO

While there were no fatalities at a school during this outbreak, this was also the same year seven students at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma, were killed when a tornado struck the school with EF4-rated winds. Amid the storm, a cinder block wall had collapsed on the children.

The tornado was rated EF5 overall, with EF4 damage at the school. The rating made the twister the most recent tornado of EF5 strength to occur in the U.S., according to SPC data.

From 2000 to 2023, only two tornadoes – both EF4s – have claimed the lives of people sheltering in a school – the 2013 Moore, Oklahoma, tornado and the 2007 Enterprise, Alabama, tornado that killed eight students. Like the victims of the Moore tornado, walls collapsed on the students while they were taking shelter in the interior hallway.

“That is the risk with any larger structures such as schools, and the architecture is important,” Sojda said. “Usually, the gymnasium is one of the first spots to fail since it’s such a large space with minimal support to hold up the roof and walls.”

The Storm Prediction Center notes gyms, auditoriums, and most lunch rooms can be dangerous even in weak tornadoes and shouldn’t be used for sheltering people. It also notes that portable classrooms, which are often built like mobile homes, can be “death traps” in a tornado.

It echoed the sentiment that architecture matters, and while there’s no guaranteed “safe place” in a tornado, “children are safer deep within a school than in a bus or a car,” as the students may still be on the roads when severe weather hits.

Produced in association with AccuWeather