After they’ve checked the school supply lists, packed lunches and labelled all their children’s belongings, many parents in southern California have one more, gut-wrenching task.
They must choose the words they would pass on to their son or daughter if an earthquake or other disaster were to bring destruction and injury to the classroom.
It’s not mandatory, but many schools and daycares ask parents to write letters to their children in case a catastrophic event separates families for hours, days – or longer.
Julie Corby wrote an “in case of emergency” letter last year, when her son Melese, who was almost three, was about to enter pre-school.
“I immediately burst into tears,” Corby remembers. “The idea was terrifying and upsetting.”
The task was especially tough for Corby because Melese and his older sister, Meziare, were adopted from an orphanage in Ethiopia. Sending them to school – away from the safety of their new family – was tough enough. Imagining them alone and scared after a catastrophe was horrible.
“It feeds on every anxiety I have,” says Corby.
School officials insist the point of the letters is not to scare parents. Instead, it’s about calming children in a worst-case scenario. And in Los Angeles, the worst case could very well be a catastrophic earthquake.
There hasn’t been a major quake on the southern section of the San Andreas fault in more than a century, but scientists believe “the big one” — possibly as strong as 8.1 on the Richter scale — is overdue.
Jill Barnes, who is in charge of emergency planning for the Los Angeles Unified School District, oversees emergency plans for more than 1,000 schools, and asks each of those schools to prepare a YOYO7 plan (which stands for “You’re on Your own for 7 days”).
Teachers must have enough food, water and medical supplies to care for their students for a full week before emergency crews arrive. Barnes explains the emergency letters aren’t about imparting last words from a parent to child, but rather a practical tool to help children during what could be a lengthy separation.
Reaching your kid after a huge earthquake in southern California could be the stuff of a Liam Neeson action movie: roads block up, fires burn, bridges and overpasses can become unsafe. Cell phones might not work, and if your tank isn’t full, good luck getting gas.
Emergency workers would have to go to work immediately. Children of firefighters and nurses could see classmates reunited with family while they stayed in the care of the school.
Some of the kids waiting the longest would be the children of teachers. When Barnes was teaching, and her kids were in school, she always wrote them a letter explaining that if anything bad happened, she would stay and care for her students just as their teacher was caring for them.
Barnes says some schools ask parents to include a family picture or small stuffed toy with the letter.
“Anything to do to calm them down is going to help,” she says.
Last September, Julie Corby managed to write a short note to her son: “Dear Melese: Mommy and Daddy are on their way. Please don’t worry. We love you very much. Mezi is okay and we will all be together very soon. Your teachers will take good care of you. We love you very much.”
Corby tucked it into a brightly decorated envelope and sent it off to play school with her son.
This past June, when it was time to bring home the backpacks and the lunch containers and a year’s worth of arts and crafts, the envelope came home, too. It was exactly the way Corby wanted it – unopened.