Evacuation Considerations for Families with School-Age Children

Evacuations are events we all assume will happen to someone else, not us. However, with the world an uncertain place today, one must have a contingency plan in place. Adequate planning and knowledge of what to expect won't eliminate the difficulties one might face, but it can ease the transition somewhat. The Family Liaison Office has assisted in over 200 evacuations since 1988. Since September 11, 2001, there have been over 35 evacuations from 27 different countries, affecting over 2000 people. There have been some important lessons learned that can assist others who might find themselves in a similar situation, and thus our publications and papers dealing with evacuation considerations.

Contingency Plan: Don't Leave Home Without It – Checklist for before, during and after an evacuation 
Choosing a Safehaven: Considerations for Parents of School Age Children
Contingency Planning for Single Parents & Tandem Couples with Children

Prior to Departure

School Registration and Documentation

Prior to departure, refer to the above documents to get your personal affairs organized. Remember to hand carry school records with you: original birth certificate, social security card, immunizations records, recent TB test, and school records. It's a good practice to keep up-to-date immunization records with you at home, as it might take medical services awhile to comply with a last minute request. (M/MED can be of assistance in procuring the TB tests required for school admissions, and incidentally, can also make pediatrician and other medical referrals once you arrive.) Keep your travel orders with you at all times. You might need to produce them in order to enroll in school to prove your evacuation status.

Some schools overseas with advance lead-time have been extremely cooperative in preparing packets with school records. Perhaps the CLO could coordinate this at your post.

Regarding choosing the right school for your child, please also keep in mind that you will need to stay in the same county as your temporary housing address. In Virginia, where many temporary housing options are located, state law prohibits you from residing in one county and sending your child to school in a different county. It is theoretically possible to attend a school in another part of the same county, but this depends on the approval and cooperation of the receiving school. Some schools have been cooperative in the past, but it also depends on their own enrollment and other issues. Again, if there is a school you have your heart set on, check with the receiving school's principal before signing a lease. Refer to the Welcome Back: Evacuation Packet publication for a listing of hotels and temporary housing with the schools located in their district. To request an alternative pupil placement in Fairfax County Schools use this form

Washington area schools are becoming familiar with evacuation issues. However, many people choose alternate safehavens where school personnel are less familiar with the concept of an evacuation. Your documentation may not match what has traditionally been in their operations manual. In such cases, it is advisable to contact the school district directly ahead of time to explain your unique situation. The first point of contact might be the head of school registration for the district. If you have any difficulty, you may contact our office for assistance at flo@state.gov or 202-647-1076.

Special Needs

If you have a child with special needs, please contact us so that we can coordinate efforts to find an appropriate setting. There are, however, no guarantees of service if your child does not have a legal IEP written by a public school here in the United States. The legal process for determining eligibility for a special needs child in the public school system is quite lengthy and bureaucratic, and can take several months to complete. Many of our children overseas have gone through testing that has shown they qualify for the Special Needs Allowance by the U.S. Department of State. However, this does not mean that the same test results would result in a determination of special education eligibility according to local, state and federal guidelines under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Schools overseas can write "accommodation plans" or even a pseudo - IEP, but this does NOT make it legally valid here in the U.S. We will try to assist on a case by case basis. Please remember to hand carry all supporting special needs documentation, especially if you have an IEP. Also, at this point in time the special needs allowance cannot be paid while on evacuation status.

Unaccompanied Child

Of particular concern are the issues involved when a child returns to the U.S. without the parent or guardian. Some school districts will accept a Power of Attorney authorizing someone other than the parent to register the child in school, other districts will not accept anything less than a court order, and still others will accept a Power of Attorney with travel orders for deployed military but no one else. The only way to assure yourself if you are in this situation is to call the school system ahead of time. Again, the first point of contact would be the head of student registration - remember to ask for their name. It is also recommended that you sign a medical waiver form so that your child may receive medical treatment if necessary. If you need assistance, you may contact our office.

High School Students

Graduation requirements also vary state by state, and if you have a child in high school, it is IMPERATIVE that you speak to the guidance counselor as soon as possible. While you may be hoping for an expeditious end to an evacuation, experience tells us that not everyone is able to return to post before the year's end. High school seniors have been particularly hard hit if they suddenly find themselves in the unexpected situation of having to graduate from a stateside school. For example, The Virginia Literacy Test is a state requirement (offered in the lower middle school grades), but nevertheless a state requirement for graduation. Some credits can be negotiated, but another stumbling block can be the state requirement in every state for American history and/or U.S. government. Therefore, a student should prepare for these contingencies as well. We have seen some students make up graduation course requirements via on-line courses or night school classes. Fairfax County's website for on-line courses is http://www.fcps.edu/DIS/OHSICS/onlinecampus. Some students have been able to continue taking classes on line with the overseas school, and others have worked out arrangements for the diploma to be conferred by the overseas school as well. Every situation is unique - the bottom line is to talk it through with the receiving and home school sooner rather than later so that your efforts can be coordinated. Also, this office will assist to resolve problems upon request.

If you are in doubt that a particular high school will fit the needs of your student, you should contact the school you are considering before arrival, if possible, to see if the courses match those in which the student is currently enrolled. Do not assume that IB courses offered in the Washington area schools are the same as IB courses offered overseas. Also, most high schools that offer IB do not offer AP (Advanced Placement courses), so it's important to do your homework as soon as possible. If still in doubt once you arrive, then it might be a wise idea to spend a few days in a hotel while deciding on the school that has the appropriate program. Then you can look for temporary housing within that particular school district. Once you have signed a 30-day lease, it can be difficult to get out of it if you find that you are not within the right school boundaries. For a complete listing of Washington area school district web sites and more information on IB and AP programs, go to Choices for High School: IB and AP.

If you have a child who is a senior and will be applying to college or university during your evacuation, this period could be exponentially more stressful! The importance of making an appointment with your child and his/her guidance counselor to discuss the college application process cannot be over-emphasized. The guidance counselor will be shepherding your child's college application through the process, and will need to really know and understand your child in order to best serve the student. Furthermore, extenuating circumstances such as an evacuation can be noted in a cover letter from the guidance counselor, or even the student himself, so that the university admissions staff understands the unique situation. Those experts contacted have all said this evacuation experience can be seen through a positive light. College admissions officers will want the student to demonstrate resiliency, flexibility, and growth as a result of the experience, and this can be addressed through the essay. (This advice applies to all Foreign Service students.) It's an example of the old adage, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"  See FLO's College and Beyond web pages.


Before leaving, be sure that your children who are computer savvy have email information for friends and other people close to them. This will help them to stay connected during the evacuation, and also complete any on-line coursework available.

Medical Forms

Bring shot record. TB test must be recent and READ by a doctor who has signed off on it (apparently some people bring certificates stating they've had the test but it doesn't show the read result three days later).

Some families have considered getting the physical examinations out of the way at post as part of their contingency planning. If your child would like to participate in sports (a great idea to help with readjustment and the stress!), he/she will need a sports physical as well before even being allowed to dress out. Here are some sites that I hope will be helpful. The exams are valid up for up to one year.

District of Columbia: 

  • Health Documentation: Private school students are required to submit certificates of health at the pre-kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 11th grades. The certificates of health must be signed by a physician or nurse practitioner upon examination not more than 150 calendar days before the first day of school. In addition, the Mayor establishes requirements for periodic dental examinations and the submission of certificates of dental health. No student will be excluded from school for failure to submit a certificate. D.C. Code Ann.  31-2404. The Mayor is responsible for developing and providing the standard forms for certificates of health and dental health. D.C. Code Ann.  31-2402. If physical or dental examinations violate the established tenets and practices of a parent's/guardian's or student's church or religious denomination, then certificates of health shall not be required of the student upon receipt of a written notarized statement to that effect. D.C. Code Ann.  31-2403.
  • To see other policies for D.C. public schools, see http://www.k12.dc.us/dcps/policies/policies_frame.html

Montgomery County, Maryland: 


  • Health documentation: A certificate of recent (within 12 months) physical examination by a licensed physician (form MCH 213D) is required for U.S. students, kindergarten through sixth grade, and kindergarten through twelfth grade for foreign students. U.S. transfer students may submit evidence that a comprehensive physical examination was completed prior to enrolling in a previous school. A physical examination is not required for students in alternative high school or adult education who are 18 years of age or older.
  • The Code of Virginia requires every child to be immunized or provide statements from the doctor explaining why a required immunization was not given. Official documentation must provide complete dates (month, day, year).
  • http://www.fcps.edu/DIT/forms/mch213.pdf - This is the Commonwealth of Virginia School Entrance Health Form to be filled out by a physician. This is the most important form!
  • http://www.arlington.k12.va.us/schools/swanson/admin/healthforms.htm - This form is for parents to fill out.
  • http://www.fcps.edu/DIT/forms/se71.pdf - This is the Fairfax County form for parents to fill out.

Upon Arrival

There will be numerous details to tend to when you first arrive. However, it is suggested that at the top of the list should be investing in a laptop computer if you have no other computer access. If that option is too expensive, using Internet cafes, public libraries, and the Employee Services Center in the Main State building are also possibilities for Internet access. Next try to arrange for a temporary email account - there is so much competition now for email that some companies such as AOL give away the first 1000 hours free with the software. The important thing is to be connected to the world you just left. You will want to receive emails from loved ones left behind, FLO updates, friends from post, kids' friends from post, schoolwork (OK, so that's not on many kids' lists!), and you will also want to be able to access information on the Internet.

Enrolling in School

By now you have shopped for schools, signed a lease, procured email and internet access, applied for SEA allowances, contacted the Family Liaison Office, and are wired into your evacuated community. Now you need to enroll your child in school - for enrollment information, please link to the individual schools system's website. Our web page Education Options for Foreign Service Children (K-12) has links to many Washington area school districts' home pages. There is more enrollment information in our paper, Choosing a Safehaven: Considerations for Parents of School Age Children.

Those enrolling in most northern Virginia public schools have had few problems. You many go directly to the school to enroll, but for better service it is recommended that you make an appointment before arriving. School officials we have contacted have pledged to be as cooperative as possible when our families arrive.

If you are enrolling in a Montgomery County Public School, their intake system is different from that found in Virginia, but they are equally committed to helping out our families upon return to the U.S. Upon arrival in MCPS, you will need to go to their International Student Center first, NOT your local school. MCPS firmly believes that this is the most expeditious way to register a new family.

Rocking Horse Road Center
4910 Macon Road
Rockville, MD 20852.
Telephone number: 301-230-0686
Should you have any questions or concerns, you can call the Family Liaison Office at 202-647-1076.

In this center, they also have a medical staff to review the shot record, the registrar for boundaries, and initial screening for ESL and special education.

This center also reviews transcripts and will note anything noteworthy for the guidance counselor at the receiving school. This will be very helpful for the high school student who needs graduation credits, AP/IB testing information, etc. Additionally, if any high school students enroll, it would be MOST HELPFUL to bring along the course descriptions of course you are currently or have taken that will appear on your high school transcripts in order to earn full credit.

Here are their admissions requirements for MCPS:

  • school starting age: 5 years by December 31 for kindergarten
  • birth certificate
  • proof of residence (in evacuations, hotel or lodging receipts are acceptable)
  • last report card with address of previous school
  • inoculations: DPT,MMR; 6th graders need 2nd measles vaccination; and
  • TB test for some areas.

Next, it is highly recommend that you immediately schedule a conference with your child's teacher, and if it is a school that does not receive many of our evacuees, the guidance counselor and principal. No matter how well intentioned, few people can understand how traumatic and stressful the experience of evacuation can be on families. School personnel will want to be responsive, and the more they know about your child and your situation, the more sensitive they can be. Individual or team conferences in middle and high schools are normally scheduled through the child's guidance counselor.

Here are some talking points that I have used with area guidance counselors who serve children of all ages that you might want to draw upon for your own conferences when discussing the evacuation and it's impact on children and families:

Evacuation means

  • Interrupted school years
  • Sense of loss without closure
  • Feelings of grief over sudden lost way of life
  • Loved ones left behind in danger
  • Feelings of uncertainty, loss of control
  • Reverse culture shock
  • The need for peer acceptance
  • A world turned upside down
  • The need for empathy
  • Time of tremendous stress for families

Signs of Stress in Children/Adolescents

  • Inability to focus in class
  • Regression in behavior of young children
  • More frequent episodes of crying or anger
  • Sadness or depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Changes in eating, sleeping patterns
  • Occasionally we see physical symptoms associated with stress in children
  • On rare occasion, self-destructive behavior

Suggestions for school personnel for easing the transition

  • Awareness of what child and family is experiencing
  • Alert teachers to be aware of possible behaviors associated with stress in the classroom
  • Frequent communication between guidance, teachers, students, and parents
  • Engage student in life of the school
  • Assign buddy and/or mentor
  • Make sure child feels welcome at school
  • Ask student to talk about country in which he/she was living
  • Don't assume children automatically know how to do ordinary things just because they are Americans.
  • Get to know the child
  • Link other Third Culture Kids (TCKs) together if there are other internationally mobile children in the school
  • Be flexible and accommodating!


  • Growing up in an internationally-mobile lifestyle is challenging
  • Adults and peer group can help to ease the transition
  • Despite hardships, FS kids are mostly enthusiastic about their lifestyle - we are not victims. These kids are young heroes!
  • Parents can find more information about Foreign Service children and the challenges of reentry, evacuations and college applications in FLO's Parent Advocacy: Talking with School Personnel.  Here you will find recommendations and best practices for working with school administrators and teachers.  

How to Cope with Stress at Home

Now that your school-age child has settled into school, we can focus our discussion on what happens at home. This can be an extraordinarily stressful time, and children often take their cue from their caregiver. This means that it's important for the parent or caregiver take time to nurture themselves to help ease the stress levels. The network of support that you have with your community, especially if you are in a safehaven where you have contact with your post community, is invaluable. Find the things that you enjoy doing and make time for them. Eat sensibly and exercise. Rediscover some of the joys of being back in the United States - maybe it's watching the seasons change, seeing first run movies, fulfilling your heart's desire at an American supermarket - you get the idea. Take care of yourself so that you can care for others.

Factors in Resiliency

Children often show the signs of stress as outlined earlier, but seem to do better when these things are in place:

  • Frequent contact with the parent back at post via email, telephone, letters, packages, etc.
  • Adherence to a routine
  • Proper nutrition, sleep, and exercise
  • Additional time with the resident parent
  • Contact with and acceptance from a peer - a best buddy

Other Factors in Resiliency

These notes come from lessons learned from others who have been through the evacuation experience. Those who cope best...

  • Have courage to try new things, make mistakes, but not give up
  • Create a sense of order and stability where you can
  • Maintain tolerance for ambiguity - stay calm, speculate, but avoid negativity
  • Acknowledge stress but avoid blame, guilt, and more negative thoughts
  • Avoid sense of being a chronic victim
  • Maintain a sense of autonomy - "I am not defined by this situation."
  • Pursue their own interests and talents - carpe diem!
  • Practice tolerance at home like they do overseas
  • Keep their sense of humor and perspective
  • Reach out to others - support them and RECEIVE support
  • Practice the philosophy "Positive thinking is a shortcut to resiliency."
  • Realize tomorrow is a new day
  • Celebrate success
  • Create an upbeat environment - choice of music, colors, and COMPANY!
  • Work on it every day!

When to Seek Help

You can expect children to have some bad days throughout this experience. Everyone will have some days that are better than others. However, a series of bad days with no signs of normalcy is usually an indicator that something more serious is amiss. Crying, withdrawal, aggressiveness in play, words, art, writing, etc., regression are normal in small amounts, but if it continues it might be wise to seek professional help. You might want to start with another teacher/parent conference, or the school guidance counselor, to find out what is happening with your child at school. Another free and confidential counseling service offered by the Department of State is the Employee Consultation Service. These licensed and certified social workers can consult via email, telephone, or in person, and are trained to see both children and adults. Don't hesitate to seek them out when a little extra support is needed. Tel: (202) 663-1815, FAX (202) 663-1456.

Going Back to Post

At the end of this experience, most parties are anxious to return to post and resume normalcy. However, everyone involved will have changed. As happy as the family is to return to post and be reunited, one can expect to have another adjustment period. Life is never static, and those left behind will have also changed. Time, patience, and good communication will aid in the healing process as the community seeks to rebuild itself.

Preparing for the unexpected -- an evacuation - is like taking along an umbrella in case of rain. You know if you don't take the umbrella, it is sure to pour; if you take the umbrella, you could end up with a sunny day!


Information provided by the Family Liaison Office
Contact the Family Liaison Office