September is National Preparedness Month. Excellent timing, as we’re focusing on emergency preparedness and recovery. Emergencies and disasters can come in any form, any size, and at any time. From allergic reactions to natural disasters, man-made emergencies to health epidemics, schools absolutely must be prepared to react and recover. For the moment, I’ll focus in on pandemic preparedness, as research shows it has typically been overlooked.
According to research conducted after the 2009 swine flu outbreak, and published by the American Journal of Infection Control, “…most schools are even less prepared for an infectious disease disaster, such as a pandemic, compared with a natural disaster or other type of event.”
- Less than half of schools updated their crisis plans or developed a plan to address biological events
- One third of schools instructed children how to protect themselves from infection
- One third of schools stockpiled personal protective equipment (PPE)
- Half of schools coordinated relief plans with local and regional agencies
- Almost no schools ran school disaster exercises that included infectious disease scenarios
- About one fourth of schools had no staff members who were trained in the disaster plan
The fact that schools are more prepared for obvious natural disasters isn’t surprising; however, the results do reveal that schools need to focus on upgrading preparedness procedures in all areas, perhaps focusing even more on pandemics.
According to researchers, “Lack of coordination between school and community disaster plans has been identified as a gap in disaster planning.” In addition to coordinating with the community, “Schools need to make prearrangements to ensure access to supplies during a disaster.” This is especially important as research found many of the schools lacking in preparedness simply hadn’t obtained needed supplies. Without access to supplies, a vital step of any preparedness plan is entirely eliminated.
What’s convenient about preparing for a pandemic, as opposed to a natural disaster, is that the preparation becomes useful on a recurring, everyday basis. Rarely does a school need their tornado emergency procedures on an everyday basis, but children routinely become ill and require treatment. “Infection prevention training and access to PPE are important not only for disaster preparedness, but also for everyday minimization of infection transmission in schools.”
An essential part of preparation planning is getting the school nurse involved. It makes sense that those entrusted with student health should be instrumental in helping plan for health emergencies. “School nurses are the health professionals responsible for implementing policies and programs to prevent infection transmission in schools, and thus are those best able to inform school disaster planning committees on aspects of plan development that will affect infection transmission.”
By including nurses, training staff, and educating students, the process takes on a trickle-down effect. As ABC News reports, Dr. Kristi Koenig, director of public health preparedness at the University of California at Irvine, says, “Not only do we need to protect our children, but those same children can learn how to prepare for disasters and bring this knowledge home to their families. This can be for all types of disasters whether it is a pandemic, hurricane, earthquake or terrorist attack.” By informing children and families, the community at large can become more informed, and more prepared to either avoid a pandemic, or at the worst, react properly when disaster does strike.