Risk & crisis management in international schools: Part 1
Risk & crisis management in international schools: Part 1
Risk & crisis management in international schools: Part 1


Mary Powell
 CIS staff photo of Heather Bell


By Mary Powell and Heather Bell, CIS School Support & Evaluation Officers



When Sudan’s civil war swept into the capital, Khartoum, in May 2023, two CIS school leaders faced unprecedented challenges and difficult decisions.

1 yellow umbrella among black umbrellas under a dark grey sky

In the first of a three-part series, we're highlighting challenges facing CIS member schools worldwide as they mitigate risk and navigate crisis.

Through stories of resilience among CIS member schools, we explore critical elements of risk and crisis management and highlight important considerations for international schools seeking to implement leading practice. We do this through the lens of the CIS International Accreditation Framework.

Back in May in Sudan, the two school leaders worked to keep Sudanese and expatriate staff safe, secure their campuses, and safeguard the well-being of students and families. They eventually evacuated from a city cut off from the world due to the bombardment of Khartoum’s international airport and damage to the communications infrastructure.

As peril unfolded, the school leaders in Sudan studied emergency plans and adapted them to forge new paths through unexpected circumstances. 

In the weeks that followed, a majority of school personnel and families evacuated Sudan with the help of a combination of insurers, governors, and diplomatic missions. Khartoum American School has since reopened at a temporary satellite campus in partnership with a school in Alexandria, Egypt.

Many school leaders have reflected that if they could make it through the COVID-19 pandemic, they can make it through anything.

The reality is that CIS schools are spread across 121 countries and face varied and unpredictable crises all too frequently, and every emergency has unique pressure points and complexities.

Over the past year alone, CIS school leaders have reported preparing for and handling a diverse range of scenarios that pose destabilising or existential threats to their schools, including:

  • Acts of war, coups d’états, and conflict
  • Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and fire
  • Political and social unrest
  • The death of a student or staff member
  • Outbreaks of disease and infection
  • Medical emergencies
  • Campus invasion, kidnapping, and active shooters
  • Bomb threats and weapons incidents
  • Child protection and safeguarding disclosures and allegations
  • Financial crises and currency challenges; in addition to posing operational challenges, these circumstances can threaten schools’ ability to meet their obligations in case of a force majeure event

How can school leaders take concrete steps to prepare for high-impact crises while being agile enough to handle the inevitable, yet unpredictable, nuances of crisis?

Whether a natural disaster or human-made, school leaders must prepare for the unexpected, regardless of the type of crisis we are preparing for.

With this in mind, we're exploring core considerations for crisis management in international schools and examining the crisis management life cycle through the lens of the following stages, with a special focus on leadership agility and mindset:

Risk and crisis management life cycle

Ongoing communication with the internal school community, families, external partners, and the public accompanies each of these stages.

We will showcase the resilience, creativity, and strength of spirit that CIS school leaders and their communities continually demonstrate as they lead through cataclysmic events.


‘Everyone is being strong and staying calm. Yet I am also reminded of ducks on water where someone looks calm, but if you can see below the surface, they are frantically paddling.’

Amanda Sunderman, Head of School, Tarsus American College, Turkey, following catastrophic earthquakes in the Adana region of Turkey in February 2023


Our three considerations:

  1. How is leading practice in risk and crisis management embedded in the CIS International Accreditation Framework?
  2. What does leading practice look like in international schools?
    a. How are CIS school leaders and governors mitigating risk and preparing for crisis?
    b. When disaster strikes, how are CIS school leaders and governors effectively responding and leading the recovery process in their communities?
  3. Where can school leaders find essential resources to support each facet of crisis management?


How does the CIS International Accreditation Framework address crisis preparedness?

Our approach to emergency preparedness is grounded in the Four Drivers of CIS International Accreditation. All CIS member schools—whether accredited by CIS or not—should consider their alignment with the Four Drivers as they risk assess, prepare, and respond to crises.

Essential questions

Here are some essential questions linked to the Four Drivers that all schools can reflect on:

Purpose & direction


  • How do governors and school leaders ensure the school can fulfil essential duties and provide long-term stability in case of a sudden change in the operational environment or a force majeure event?
  • How do school leaders and governors ensure that adequate financial reserves are in place to meet their obligations in case of a force majeure event?
  • How are school leaders and teachers ensuring readiness to support continuity of students’ learning in the case of disruptive or catastrophic events?
  • How do schools' learning programmes help students learn about risk and develop the skills, attributes, and understandings needed to manage risk and navigate crisis?


Global citizenship

  • How are school governors and leaders proactively mitigating risk to safeguard the school and its community members?
  • How does the school maintain and ensure the effectiveness of its crisis management plan in the form of policies, procedures, drills, and communication plans?
  • How does the school’s response to crisis address community well-being?
  • How do school leaders and governors demonstrate socially responsible leadership?
  • How does the school develop students’ and staff’s global citizenship competencies to contribute to a peaceful and equitable world?
  • How does the school reduce its environmental impact and implement leading practices in environmental stewardship?


Across the CIS International Accreditation Framework, schools and evaluators can find crisis management expectations embedded in the standards and criteria within the domains. The framework asks schools to consider risk in context and develop robust plans that reduce harm to individuals and reduce risks to the institution’s stability. Following any incident, the framework asks schools to reflect, learn from the past, and adjust their plans accordingly.

For example, the following are some of the standards and criteria articulating expectations for accredited schools:

Governance, ownership, & leadership
Governors and/or owners, as well as leaders, can clearly demonstrate how they would manage continuity in the event of internal and external changes to the school’s operating environment. (For CIS-accredited schools, see Domain B4ii)

The health, safety, and security of students and staff conducting activities outside the school is supported through clearly documented and effectivetly implemented policy and procedures, including risk assessment and mitigation. (For CIS-accredited schools, see Domain E4)

The premises
The school has well developed and practiced policies, procedures, drills, and communication plans as part of an overall crisis management plan. Where necessary, these exceed local regulatory requirements. (For CIS-accredited schools, see Domain G2iii)

Residential services
The school provides health and well-being support to residential students, including first aid, medical care, the management of personal and social well-being, crisis and emergency management, and age-appropriate health and well-being education. (For CIS-accredited schools, see Domain I3)


A call to action for self-reflection

We encourage you to set aside time with your colleagues this quarter to reflect on your school’s practices in crisis management. Use the essential questions and standards above to consider how your school’s actions and approaches to crisis preparedness and management advance your school’s mission, high-quality learning, community well-being, and the development of global citizenship.

How are you preparing for unfortunate events? How well do your policies, procedures, and plans help secure your school’s sustainability and whole-school well-being? 

Mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery

In Part 2, we'll focus on risk mitigation and emergency preparedness. We'll explore central considerations for school leaders as they create a culture of risk assessment and engage in scenario planning in their specific contexts.

In Part 3, we'll consider how schools respond to crises when the worst happens and how they lead their communities on the path to recovery.

We look forward to sharing case studies with our members and identifying resources to support this work.

Do you have a story or resource to share? Get in touch!

We want to hear about your experience managing crises in your school community. If you work at a CIS member school and have navigated natural disasters, war and conflict, intrusion, political unrest, or any other crisis in your community, please share your story with us. Your reflections are invaluable as we showcase leading practice and develop further guidance and resources for CIS schools.

Please get in touch with us: marypowell@cois.org or heatherbell@cois.org.


Mary Powell and Heather Bell are School Support & Evaluation Officers at CIS. You can learn more about them here.


Related content:

Risk & crisis management in international schools: Part 1
  • Leadership
Risk & crisis management in international schools: Part 1