Story at a glance
- Most public schools have established written procedures for handling emergencies.
- New research shows that less than half of all public schools have a written plan for dealing with a pandemic.
- More schools are prepared to deal with natural disasters and active shooters than health emergencies.
Most students have been practicing fire drills and tornado drills since before they learned how to read. But while public schools are well equipped to deal with a range of emergencies, the coronavirus pandemic caught them off guard.
Across the country, public school systems have now closed, switching to remote learning to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some are making plans to reopen, while others have shortened the school year, and educators are considering adjustments to lesson plans and grading systems. One constant, however, is that many of them were not prepared for a public health crisis of this magnitude.
In the 2017-18 school year, 46 percent of public schools in the United States had a written plan describing procedures to be performed in the case of a pandemic disease, according to the School Survey on Crime and Safety’s most recent report, lower than for any other crisis scenario. Schools with more than 300 students were slightly more likely to have a written pandemic plan than smaller schools.
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In comparison, more than 90 percent of schools had such plans for natural disasters, active shooters and bomb threats or incidents. A higher percentage of schools also had plans for suicide threats or incidents, post-crisis reunification of students with their families, chemical, biological or radiological threats or incidents and hostage situations.
In previous school years, the survey asked schools whether they had written plans for an influenza pandemic, although these plans would be vastly different since there has been a flu vaccine developed but no coronavirus vaccine. While 69 percent of public schools had such a plan during the 2009-10 school year, that number dropped to 51 percent in 2015-16.
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