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4 Tips to Help Schools Prepare for the Next Pandemic

by Staff

As school districts continue work to recover from setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they should also take the time to update their plans for responding to future pandemics, experts say.

Prior to COVID-19, about 74 percent of districts had a crisis plan that included “pandemic influenza or other infectious diseases,” according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But less than half of districts had a plan for how to continue schooling during unanticipated building closures.

Although it may be uncomfortable, the perfect time to plan for the next pandemic is now, while the impact of COVID-19 is still being felt, some experts say.

One recent study suggests more districts are doing just that. In January, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 82 percent of public schools had a plan for pandemic disease, and 93 percent said they felt “somewhat” or “very” prepared to handle a future pandemic.

In recent interviews with Education Week, Chris Curran, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Florida who has studied schools’ pandemic response plans, and Patricia Kapunan, medical officer for the Montgomery County school district in Maryland, offered tips for districts’ pandemic planning.

1. Focus on pandemic procedures, rather than specific scenarios

Rather than trying to anticipate every possible scenario and curveball a pandemic disease could bring, experts recommend school districts instead establish clear policies and procedures for the inevitable. That could include protocols for preventing disease spread, such as guidelines for cleaning buildings and reiterating best practices around washing hands and vaccinations, Kapunan said.

It could also include clear processes for reporting positive diagnoses, determining in advance which agencies schools are required to report positive cases to, and deciding well ahead of time the situations in which a district would report news of a positive case to staff and community members.

The best pandemic preparedness plans would also detail which government department or agencies the district will look to for health guidance, and delineate whether other agencies are responsible for any parts of the response plan, such as whether state or county-level officials determine when school buildings close.

“The key here is having a plan … so that we know who’s in the lead, who’s consulted with, who’s responsible for making different decisions,” Curran said.

2. Build relationships with local health officials

Now, while not in the middle of a crisis, is the perfect time to establish (or rebuild) relationships with the leaders of local health departments, Kapunan said. The health department is often responsible for determining communitywide pandemic interventions, like masking requirements, that affect schools.

Having a strong relationship with health leaders and discussing the best ways to communicate decisions on health protocols such as masking—and even including school officials in the discussion—can prevent a lot of unnecessary, in-the-moment stress.

A strong partnership could also allow for more effective interventions, Kapunan said. For example, health leaders may suggest students be tested for a disease prior to returning from a long break and offer free test kits. School leaders can help devise a plan to effectively distribute those test kits to students and communicate the requirement to families.

“In pandemic operations, sometimes it’s clear what needs to be done, but the problem is how it can be done and whether or not it can be done at scale and with equity,” Kapunan said. “Sort of understanding how it works from the school’s side is really important and something that the health department people actually might not have, and that the pediatricians or the medical community might not have.”

3. Think about pandemic communication

One of the most important pieces of pandemic planning, Kapunan said, is communication.

Being intentional and consistent about what information is shared with employees and families can foster trust during a time that otherwise feels unstable and scary.

Determine ahead of time how often your district will plan to send routine updates during a pandemic, decide in what ways emergency messages will be shared, and outline when a report of a positive case will be shared with the community. Does a district report every case, for example, or only outbreaks?

4. Devise a plan to continue teaching and learning during extended building closures

Before COVID-19, most school districts hadn’t planned for long-term building closures and how to continue instruction, largely because such closures hadn’t happened before in recent history.

But schools shouldn’t make that mistake again, experts say. Instead, they should reflect on the successes and failures of remote learning during COVID-19 to devise a plan for things like distributing devices, tracking attendance, grading, and keeping curriculum engaging and aligned with standards as much as possible, Curran said.

Although teacher preparation programs have been slow to embrace online learning, COVID-19 has pushed some districts, like in Fresno, Calif., to take a more intentional approach to training teachers on remote instruction. The Fresno district has begun providing professional development with the technology teachers use to simultaneously conduct classes for students in person and online.

The work could be useful outside of pandemics, too, as they could be used in the event of a natural disaster, he added.

“The hope is we won’t see something on the scale of COVID again for a long time, but it’s likely we’ll all be out of school at some point for something like snow storms or disasters, and it’s crucial to have systems in place to do the best that we can for students,” Curran said.

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