Preparing for a Pandemic

Pandemic literally means occurring across a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population. The word is used to describe a global disease outbreak in which a new virus materializes and against which the human population has little or no immunity. The virus spreads easily and causes serious illness.

Typically, the word pandemic is used in conjunction with the flu, courtesy of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu, which killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.

Today, the U.S. government is advocating preparation for a pandemic on all levels — especially in schools. The death toll from the seasonal flu, 36,000 people per year, is reason enough to plan for influenza. However, officials are also currently concerned about the Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Virus (an Avian Influenza subtype, frequently called the Bird Flu). Bird Flu is just that — a virus that affects birds. While the risk is generally low, infection can occur in humans. Health officials are concerned that as the Influenza A viruses change, they will spread between humans more easily and become resistant to medications. The result would be a flu pandemic.

One district that’s planning for a pandemic is Seattle Public Schools (SPS).“We consider pandemic planning to be part of the infectious disease incident category of our emergency plan and have been working on it since the onset of the SARS virus in 2003,” says Pegi McEvoy, MN, ARNP, safety administrator for SPS.

When McEvoy talks with administrators about pandemic planning, she refers to four continuities. The first is health: how to keep staff and students healthy. The second is the continuity of business functions. An example includes defining which staff members are“essential” if the federal government says only essential employees are to report for work. The third is education itself. And the fourth is the community. “We want to help our community manage through this as best as possible,” says McEvoy, “so we must consider what else we can offer our community during the pandemic, such as vaccination sites, social services and meals.”

These four continuities are seen in the following considerations offered to administrators about to embark on a pandemic plan.

  1. One Size Does Not Fit All
    A pandemic plan is not a one-size-fits-all plan to be shared from district to district, simply because there are so many variables between districts. For example, SPS has 97 dialects across its student body, so the district must plan to effectively communicate across all 97 dialects. Your district may have only one dialect.

    The key is to find out what is recommended and what other administrators have built into their plans, but borrow only the parts that apply to your district. Your plan must be based on your community’s resources, your local health department’s planning assumptions, and what your state allows.

    Safe Havens International, an IRS-approved, nonprofit school safety center located in Macon, Ga., has sample templates on its Website, “Administrators still have to do a lot of work to tailor our templates to their own districts,” says Sonya Shepherd, chief operating officer, “but they include pandemic planning and business continuity planning.”

  2. Start Nationally
    Evaluate your current emergency planning, because pandemic planning is one element of emergency planning. Ask what your assumptions are — what you’re trying to do and why. Then look at the planning check sheets provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Education,

    “The Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the CDC list the planning assumptions on which their planning is based,” McEvoy points out. “You’ll want to take a close look at how they match up to yours and how yours can be further tailored.”

  3. Work with Your Local Health Experts
    After looking at national planning assumptions, look at your local public health department’s planning documents. “Whenever you’re preparing any plan, including pandemic, you want to work with your local health people,” says Shepherd. “You must plan around your own unique situation, which depends on your resources.”

    Administrators, teachers, emergency management, local law enforcement, and school nurses must plan together. Remember to include the custodial and janitorial staff. “They’re the ones who keep the schools sanitized and cleaned,” Shepherd points out. “They have the equipment and a plan about how often they’re cleaning the schools.”

  4. Include a School-wide Infection Control Plan
    This should include such elements as social distancing, respiratory etiquette, and hand washing.

  5. Anticipate a Reduced Work Force
    During an outbreak, it’s estimated that as much as 30 to 40 percent of your employees won’t be able to report to work, either because they’re caring for ill family members or they’re ill themselves. Plan for alternative scheduling or a mass of substitute teachers (realizing even they may not be available).

  6. Consider Learning Alternatives
    When it comes to pandemics, schools are a unique business in that education may continue even if the government says there must be social distancing. This leaves administrators asking how that can be accomplished. One solution is distance learning.

    But social distancing is just one side of a many-sided challenge. A pandemic can hit at any time, like during winter break or before spring exams. What if it hits on the first day of school? Would you plan to make up lost time by extending the school day? Adjusting the school calendar to flow further into the following summer? “We need a menu of options to put into place once it hits so we can look at what our options truly are,” McEvoy points out.

    “In February, the CDC suggested developing learning plans based on a one-month and three-month cancellation of classes models,” McEvoy continues. “We need to ask, what are the impacts on our student population and how does it affect our special populations? There are a lot of legal issues.”

  7. Involve Your Transportation Department
    A plan must be developed for disinfecting and cleaning school buses and other transportation vehicles. “It doesn’t serve you to have a clean school if the school buses aren’t clean,” says Shepherd.

  8. The Plan Is a Living Document
    “Be aware that a pandemic plan isn’t something you draft and sit on a shelf,” says McEvoy. “It evolves.” In fact, SPS administrators expect more guidance this summer and fall from the Department of Education and CDC as they look into legal, distance education, and business issues.