On August 3, 2018, the CDC published a report that found no increase from 2006 to 2016 in the percentage of school districts that have a comprehensive plan to address crisis preparedness, response, and recovery. About one in four school districts does not have plans to address mental health needs and family reunification after an emergency. One in three school districts does not have plans to address an infectious disease outbreak. The percentage of school districts that required schools to include procedures for responding to pandemic influenza or other infectious disease outbreaks in their plans decreased significantly between 2006 and 2016 in rural areas and among school districts in the South.
Children spend the majority of their time at school and are particularly vulnerable to the negative emotional and behavioral impacts of disasters, including anxiety, depressive symptoms, impaired social relationships, and poor school performance. Because of concerns about inadequate school-based emergency planning to address the unique needs of children and the adults who support them, Healthy People 2020 included objectives to improve school preparedness, response, and recovery plans. Healthy People is a federal interagency working group that provides science-based, 10-year national objectives for improving the health of all Americans. On December 2, 2010, Healthy People launched its 10-year agenda for improving the Nation’s health, Healthy People 2020.
To examine improvements over time and gaps in school preparedness plans, data from the 2006, 2012, and 2016 School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS) were analyzed to assess changes in the percentage of districts meeting objectives to improve school preparedness, response, and recovery plans. Trend analyses did not reveal statistically significant increases from 2006 to 2016 in the percentage of districts meeting any of the objectives to improve school preparedness, response, and recovery plans. Differences in preparedness were detected in analyses stratified by urbanicity and census region, highlighting strengths and challenges in emergency planning for schools. To promote the health and safety of faculty, staff members, children, and families, school districts are encouraged to adopt and implement policies to improve school crisis preparedness, response, and recovery plans.
Schools that participated in SHPPS were asked whether their school district required schools to have a comprehensive plan to address crisis preparedness, response, and recovery that included four specific components: family reunification procedures, procedures for responding to pandemic influenza or other infectious disease outbreaks (only asked in 2012 and 2016), provisions for students and staff members with special needs, and provision of mental health services for students and staff members after a crisis. Surveyed schools also were asked whether their district provided funding for training or offered training on their crisis preparedness plans to school faculty and staff members, students, and students’ families, and whether their district offered education on crisis preparedness, response, and recovery to students’ families.
Overall, no significant changes over time were detected in the percentage of districts that required schools to include specific topics in their school crisis preparedness, response, and recovery plans that correspond to the Healthy People 2020 objectives.
Assessing school district requirements by subgroup identified a significant increase in the percentage of districts in suburban areas that required schools to include family reunification procedures in their plans from 2006 to 2016 and a linear increase in this requirement among districts in the Northeast. However, the percentage of school districts that required schools to include procedures for responding to pandemic influenza or other infectious disease outbreaks in their plans decreased significantly in rural areas and among districts in the South. By 2016, all Healthy People 2020 targets assessed were met in large school districts, although trends were not statistically significant.
In 2016, large districts were significantly more likely than were small districts to provide funding for or offer training on crisis preparedness for school faculty, staff members, and students’ families. Compared with districts in the Midwest, districts in the South were less likely to provide funding for training or offer training on crisis preparedness for school faculty and staff members. In contrast, districts in the Midwest were less likely than were those in the Northeast, South, and West to provide funding for training or to offer training on crisis preparedness for students’ families. Districts in the Midwest also were less likely than were those in the West to offer education on crisis preparedness, response, and recovery to students’ families.
These findings highlight strengths and challenges in emergency planning for schools. Notably, the Healthy People 2020 goal that at least 75 percent of school districts require school plans to include provision of mental health services for students, faculty, and staff members after a crisis was achieved nationally (77.6 percent) for the first time in 2016. This suggests that school districts increasingly recognize the importance of addressing post-disaster mental health needs as a vital part of crisis recovery. In addition, over the past decade, improvements were made for inclusion of family reunification procedures after a crisis at the national level, particularly in suburban schools and schools in the northeastern United States.
Despite this progress, gaps in achieving school preparedness goals at the national level persist, and progress in many essential areas is minimal. Whereas the majority of school districts have plans to address mental health needs and family reunification after an emergency, nationally, approximately one in four districts fall short of these goals, and one in three school districts does not have policies in place to prepare for an infectious disease outbreak. Because schools often function as community hubs, these gaps in preparedness planning leave communities potentially vulnerable to critical public health threats.
Preparedness planning was not consistent across localities. The percentage of rural school districts that included procedures for responding to pandemic influenza or other infectious disease outbreaks in their preparedness plans decreased significantly over time and was lower than the percentage among urban and suburban districts and towns. Furthermore, compared with large districts, a significantly lower percentage of small districts provided funding for training or offered training for crisis preparedness for school faculty, staff members, and students’ families. Because schools can be a central gathering place during an emergency in low population density areas, the decreases in infectious disease preparedness plans and lack of resources to support emergency preparedness could lead to a gap in coverage when an event occurs.
School administrators have the opportunity to lead health promotion and safety in rural and smaller communities. Schools can serve as a centralized, familiar rallying point for communities during crises; however, technical support and resources are needed to ensure successful planning for administrators. Regular training regarding crisis preparedness, response, and recovery for students and their families is essential to ensuring that communities are ready when disaster strikes. School districts can partner with local and regional public health departments to determine how best to use limited resources, identify emerging themes in responses, and review emergency operations plans to identify best practices.
Adoption of family reunification procedures might include steps to determine alternative school sheltering locations and family communication messaging (e.g., text messaging) to allow schools and communities to avoid extensive challenges to reuniting families, such as those observed after Hurricane Katrina. Timely family reunification promotes post-disaster recovery for adults and children, benefitting the health of communities and the population as a whole.
Strengthening policies and planning for infectious disease outbreaks is vital to ensuring that communities remain healthy and productive. For example, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa closed schools in affected areas for up to 10 months, compromising the health and well-being of children, staff members, and faculty who rely on schools for a sense of normalcy during a crisis. Therefore, school districts should consider developing customized protocols in the event of an outbreak of seasonal influenza. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Healthy Student, Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center and the CDC’s Children’s Preparedness Unit have developed a suite of publications and tools to help schools and families prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies.
During the past decade, more school districts have adopted policies requiring certain preparedness measures for schools. However, school districts have not met all of the target goals of the Healthy People 2020 objectives, indicating suboptimal preparedness planning in some localities. Findings from this report highlight the need for wider adoption of policies on family reunification, pandemic influenza and other infectious disease outbreak procedures, and provisions for students and staff members with special needs, particularly in rural areas. School district-specific information on school crisis preparedness planning and training might help identify and address disparities and critical gaps in preparedness and response policies and plans for children. Adoption of strong policies by school districts can promote the health and safety of faculty, staff members, children, and families and meet the Healthy People 2020 preparedness objectives for safe school environments.
See the CDC Report