Pandemic and outbreak threats

Influenza or other virus: Districts should be prepared for an outbreak - even if it never happens

Health officials, long concerned about a pandemic, acknowledge that it could strike at any time. Think of a pandemic as a local crisis happening on a worldwide scale -- in every state and city and town at almost the same time.

That kind of occurrence applies immediate strain on global, federal and state resources. A pandemic demands from local communities - prepared or not - an increased level of self-sufficiency.

School districts would be expected to maintain operations without outside assistance for long periods of time.

Without an operational pandemic plan, a school district is vulnerable to the crippling effects of a severe outbreak. Drafting a plan is a challenge; if your district has created a plan over the years, you're in pretty good shape. You can review and update it, ensuring you have the people, processes and tools in place to carry out your plan, if needed. If not, this information will help you

Why school districts should be concerned

School districts could experience long-term employee absenteeism. Districts need to consider, for example, how instruction would continue if schools were closed for weeks or even months. How would graduation requirements be met? How would employees be paid during closure? How would the district respond if hospitals had to use school buildings as staging areas for the sick?

How do school districts begin planning?

Well-developed policy is key to coping with an outbreak. The strength of a pandemic plan hinges on a district's policies for preventing and controlling infection, maintaining core operations, continuing student productivity and communicating with the public.

As a starting point, school boards should review their existing policies for emergencies, assessing if and how those policies address the challenges that would occur during a pandemic. Before a district begins to develop its pandemic policy, it should invest time in the following preliminary steps:

Establish a team. Preparedness is a team effort. Districts should form a team of key stakeholders and medical professionals to help identify priorities and oversee the development of the operational plan. In addition to district administrators and school board members, the team should include several individuals from across the district: emergency response agents, local public health experts, school health and mental health professionals, teachers, food services directors and parent representatives.

Your team, representing the district, will play a pivotal role in drafting a plan that it is relevant and accessible to all members of the community.

Know the government's role. Before the team begins to focus on planning, it should understand the roles that the federal, state and local government would play in an epidemic. In an outbreak, the governor and state agencies would coordinate planning, monitoring, communications, and distribution of vaccines and other medical supplies. The governor would also retain the power to close schools, though it is unlikely that execution of this power would occur in advance of individual district response. Local health agencies, with the help of the state, would conduct disease control, health care coordination, public education and delivery of essential services within their communities.

The role of the school board

The school board's role is to ensure that its district is equipped with policies to deal with a crisis situation, including an influenza or other virus outbreak. It is not the board's responsibility to build an operational pandemic plan for the district. Rather, planning is an administrative responsibility that is developed and presented to the board. The board, therefore, will be more active in approving the plan than in authoring it. To best facilitate this process, board members should know the important policy questions to ask. The first step for a board is to find out if the district has a pandemic plan. If a plan exists, board members should review the policies and determine if the procedures offer a sufficient response. If no plan exists, the board must initiate the process by directing the superintendent to form a pandemic planning team, to include one or two board members. The superintendent should then provide the team with the district's existing policies for dealing with emergencies and infectious diseases. (If no such policies exist, this is an ideal time to draft them.) Policy development should occur in collaboration with community partners, especially the local health department.

After the plan is complete, the board must ensure that the staff, students and community are made aware of the policies and the operational plan. As more school districts address the pandemic threat, a statewide support network has begun to grow. Many districts are willing to share advice based on their own experiences with pandemic planning. School boards who join this conversation, on either the giving or receiving end, help the education community at large. In a pandemic situation, one well-prepared district-or one ill-prepared district - can make all the difference in the community's ability to sustain itself.

Thanks to our neighbor association to the north, WSSDA, for allowing OSBA to adapt its 2006 Hot Topics publication on pandemic flu.

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