This year's back-to-school routine is a little different for Martha’s Vineyard public school employees.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, public school workers are taking part in campus-specific training sessions on how to respond to critical incidents, such as shootings and chemical spills, at or near their schools.

“It involves every member of the school staff: the custodial crew, secretarial staff, the teachers, teacher assistants [and] school administration,” assistant superintendent John Stevens told the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee last week.

It’s been six years since Island schools last underwent this critical response training, which is provided by experienced police officers with the Franklin-based company Synergy 911, Mr. Stevens said.

“They walk through all of the responses to critical incidents. They talk about emergency exits, reunification sites, what the police will do in each case for each critical incident, what the fire department will do, and so forth,” he said.

Island police officers and first responders also will be on hand, he said.

School leaders and public safety chiefs prepared for Wednesday’s live training with a three-hour “tabletop” session led by the Synergy instructors, Mr. Stevens said.

“It’s really a walk-through of responses to critical incidents such as active shooters, chemical spills, product tampering and severe weather, and it validates the [existing] emergency response plan,” he said.

The training program’s third component is a how-to kit that remains on campus, Mr. Stevens told the high school committee.

“It's a box. It contains a binder, it contains thumb drives, it contains flip charts and it's a visual and actual, physical representation of the responses for each of the critical incidents,” he said.

In an interview with the Gazette this week, Mr. Stevens noted the rising tide of campus violence in the United States.

“Just look at the national news every night,” he said, citing Monday’s fatal shooting of a professor at the University of North Carolina.

“When schools are in session, almost every day or weekly [there is] a school shooting to some degree where there are students or teachers injured,” Mr. Stevens said.

“That really emphasizes and highlights the need for schools to be prepared for critical incidents,” he said.

Even on the Vineyard, Mr. Stevens said, the past school year saw a hoax threat of gun violence that locked down the Edgartown School in February.

"These are unfortunate reminders that we need to be ready for something that might happen," he told the Gazette.

This sense of urgency has led school committees and towns to fund the program, despite the fact that it was not on their budgets for fiscal year 2024.

The cost for the high school is $11,915, Mr. Stevens said. The up-Island district will pay $3,295 for the Chilmark School and $8,600 for the West Tisbury School.

Training at Oak Bluffs School is $8,825, with the Edgartown School paying $8,170 and the Tisbury School, still at its one-story modular campus, $8,085.

The school district’s preschool at Grace Church in Vineyard Haven is included in the program as well, for $1,800, Mr. Stevens told the Gazette.

The Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School in West Tisbury and the Vineyard Montessori School in Vineyard Haven also have contracted with Synergy 911 for critical response training, Mr. Stevens said.

Montessori director Deborah Jernegan told the Gazette Wednesday that her school has worked with the company since 2021 and took part in on-site training during the 2022-2023 school year.

“We have been very proactive in engaging them for our school,” Ms. Jernegan wrote in an email.

The charter school staff took the live training Tuesday, joined by West Tisbury fire chief Greg Pachico and police sergeant Bradley Cortez,  school director Pete Steedman told the Gazette.

“The staff left … feeling very well prepared,” Mr. Steedman said. “They were very appreciative.”

The trainers from Synergy 911 help school staffers build skills and mental habits that will keep schools in readiness for the unexpected, Mr. Steedman said.

“They’re not using scare tactics, but as you know, in schools we carry a tremendous responsibility making sure all students are safe and the whole community is safe,” he said.