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August 09, 2018

Many U.S. school districts unprepared for infectious disease outbreaks

CDC study finds natural disaster plans lacking

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Classroom_Unsplash NeONBRAND/on Unsplash

Many public school districts are ill-prepared to respond to natural disasters – particularly during an influenza pandemic or another infectious disease outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed school districts across the United States to determine if they had comprehensive plans in place to respond to natural disasters.

A federal initiative urges districts to have such plans in place by 2020. Most already do. But the CDC found more than 20 percent still need to establish plans covering a myriad of preparedness components. 

Only 65 percent of school districts nationwide have enacted policies for responding to an influenza pandemic or another infectious disease outbreak. That marked the most common component lacking from the districts' overall preparedness.

And the percentage of districts with protocols for responding to infectious disease outbreaks has fallen slightly from 2012, the first year it was surveyed.

Nearly 75 percent of districts have plans in place to reunite students with their families during an emergency. And nearly 80 percent are prepared to help students and staff with special needs during an emergency and to provide mental health services afterward.

School districts located in cities and suburbs were more likely to have developed emergency plans than those in rural areas. So were large school districts and those located in the Northeast or South.

The School District of Philadelphia requires each of its schools to submit an updated safety plan each year, Senior Communications Officer Megan Lello said. Those plans are personalized to address the individual needs of each school.

"We have district safety procedures and protocol we follow as well to ensure the safety of all students and staff," Lello said in an email. "The district manages evacuations, lockdowns and shelters-in place for school-specific emergencies."

In the case of specific emergencies, like a pandemic or natural disaster, the district would partner with various city departments to coordinate resources, Lello said.

The CDC collected data from several hundred school districts in 2006, 2012 and 2016. The latest findings were released last week.

The percentage of districts implementing reunification plans has increased from 65 percent since 2006, with the biggest gains coming in city and suburban districts.

But the percentage of districts with emergency response plans for people with special needs has barely budged since 2006. Ditto for districts with plans to provide mental health services in the aftermath of a disaster.

Still, researchers noted that their findings may be limited by their reliance on districts to accurately report their emergency preparedness polices.

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