54% of schools did not have a pandemic plan before COVID-19

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During the 2017-2018 school year, most schools did not have a written plan for a pandemic. Webster Groves School District was one of the public schools that did.

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, the last time the U.S. shut down schools across the country was in 1918 when the influenza pandemic hit. 

While schools reported high percentages for a plan in case of a natural disaster or an active shooter, data shows that the majority of schools were initially unprepared for COVID-19. In the 2017-2018 school year, only 46% of U.S. public schools reported a written plan in case of a pandemic. 

An associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Florida, Chris Curran, explained why most schools did not have a procedure. 

“Compared to other crisis situations like natural disasters or school shootings, we have to go much further back in history to find an example of a pandemic that caused widespread disruption to public schoolings in the U.S.,” Curran said. “…more recent outbreaks of infectious diseases have tended to be more contained. So, like most of us, the possibility of a pandemic as disruptive as that caused by COVID-19 was just not salient.”

Webster Groves School District (WGSD) did have a plan prior to the 2020 pandemic. The original plan included information on how to respond if a student or staff member had symptoms, what organizations they would work with, and how they would determine if they should close schools. 

Graphic from Pixabay.

Between 2008 and 2010, the number of schools with a plan in response to a pandemic almost doubled. In 2010, 69% of schools had a procedure in response to the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak. Since then, the number has slowly decreased.

The decrease in the percentage of schools with a response plan since 2010 likely reflects a decreasing perception of the risk of a pandemic. To some extent, the trend in the data may also reflect decreasing awareness of existing plans.  It may be that, in some cases, plans existed, but school administrators were less aware of them over time because of decreased attention to pandemics as a threat,” Curran said. 

Even with a plan in place, WGSD still struggled at first. In a short amount of time, they had to help give students access to computers who did not have devices at home and ensure food services were available, among other things. 

“While the district has dealt with infectious diseases before, this was different because our district and the others in the county decided to shut down over spring break. We‘d started making plans for how we’d offer virtual classes before the decision was made and had to finish those plans over the break,” chief communications officer Cathy Vespereny said. 

WGSD currently has the option of allowing students to attend in-person classes or learn virtually, with 74% of students choosing to learn in-person. 

“Ultimately, it is about trying to strike a balance that keeps people safe but also minimizes the harms to learning of disrupted schooling,” Curran said. 

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Kelly Bowen
Staff Writer | + posts

I am a journalism major. I play on the women’s soccer team at Webster. I enjoy coffee, Mexican food and watching The Real Housewives of Orange County with my sister.