Public Schools Not Ready for a Pandemic

Author:  Michael Nagle
Institution:  American University
Date:  October, 2012

Less than half of American schools are prepared for a pandemic or bioterrorist attack, according to St. Louis University researchers who studied schools’ disaster management plans. 

“There’s no plan in place for [most American] schools to be ready for the next [pandemic] event,” said principal investigator Terri Rebmann, Ph.D, with Saint Louis University’s Institute for Biosecurity. “How do you continue to educate the children? What do you do for the kids who are low income and [get] two meals out of their day from the school?”

Only 40 percent of schools studied have updated their plans since the 2009 H1N1 [flu] outbreak that resulted in over 40,000 hospitalizations in the nation, according to Centers for Disease Control. According to Rebmann, this indicates lack of progress.

Schools may be reluctant to plan ahead since children are not at high risk for H1N1 infection, said Dr. Amesh Adalja. Adalja edits the quarterly Biosecurity and Bioterrorism and works at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity.

The fact that students are less at risk than seniors and infants "may have falsely lulled some people into complacency,” he said. “I think it will be very hard to give pandemic planning due respect in some of these schools just because they’re being pulled in so many ways that it’s not a high priority for them.”

Rebmann suggests schools run drills on how to handle a biological threat or pandemic. They should also collaborate with local and regional disaster response agencies, according to her study, which was published in the American Journal of Infection Control.

In the event of a pandemic or bioterrorist attack, students may be excused from class for weeks at a time to stop them from sharing disease, Rebmann said. Eighty-three percent of schools have no plans for online classes in this case.

“They’re not even working on it,” Rebmann said.“It’s not even on their radar.”

This science news brief was written under the guidance of JYI Science Writing Mentor Jake Berkowitz.