By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Many U.S. public school districts lack comprehensive plans for responding to natural disasters, infectious disease outbreaks and other emergencies despite a federal initiative for all schools to address these needs by 2020, researchers say.

Overall, roughly four out of five school districts have plans for helping students and staff with special needs during an emergency situation, the study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found. Almost four of five school districts are prepared to provide mental health services to students, faculty and staff in the wake of a disaster.

And, nearly three of four school districts have developed reunification procedures to reconnect students with their families when they’re separated during an emergency.

But less than two thirds of school districts have plans in place to handle an influenza pandemic or another type of infectious disease outbreak.

“The response to an acute emergency that happens on a single day is very different from the ongoing response to an infectious disease like influenza that may affect a school district over many weeks to months,” said Dr. Laura Faherty, a researcher at the RAND Corporation in Boston and a pediatrics professor at Boston University School of Medicine who wasn’t involved in the study.

“This difference in planning for mental health services and reunification procedures versus pandemics may be explained by how school districts are weighing the feasibility of responding effectively to infectious disease outbreaks, who should lead the response versus partner with others such as local public health departments, competing priorities and resource constraints, and likely other factors,” Faherty said by email.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Healthy People 2020” agenda includes several school disaster preparedness topics among its goals for a healthier population.

To assess whether emergency preparedness is improving, CDC researchers examined survey data collected from several hundred school districts nationwide in 2006, 2012 and 2016.

Respondents were asked whether the school district required schools to have plans in place for family reunification, infectious disease outbreaks, assistance for people with special needs and mental health care after a crisis.

Over the past decade, school districts across the country have made progress in establishing family reunification procedures, particularly in suburban districts and in the Northeast, the authors write in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

During the study period, however, the proportion of rural school districts with disaster plans for infectious disease outbreaks declined, and lagged urban and suburban areas.

Compared with larger districts, smaller and mostly rural districts were also less likely to fund emergency preparedness training for school faculty and staff or students’ families.

One limitation of the study, the authors note, is that they relied on school district officials to accurately report on their emergency preparedness policies and practices. The study also didn’t examine whether schools complied with any required disaster planning efforts.

“It didn’t assess whether anyone checked to see if the plans actually incorporated the topics, how well or thoroughly they were addressed, whether the plans were appropriate and feasible, whether the school had the resources or the staff had the training to carry out the plans, and whether or not they ever tested or evaluated the plans,” said Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“For example, the district could require that each school consider the mental health needs of students in a recovery plan, and the schools may or may not actually address that or they may simply state that “students will be provided counseling by school mental health staff” but not be at all prepared to meet that need,” Schonfeld, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “It is therefore quite noteworthy that more than 1 out of 5 school districts don’t even reach this bar.”

Beyond anything that happens at school, parents should also talk to children about what to expect and what to do in an emergency, said lead study author Judy Kruger of the CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness & Response in Atlanta.

“Children may be at school and separated from family when disaster strikes,” Kruger said by email. “Parents can prepare children by talking to them about school closure, how to cope with unexpected situations and the details of a family reunification plan.”

SOURCE: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, online August 3, 2018.