Though an unprecedented event in modern times, the COVID-19 pandemic is the type of epidemiological event that many public health experts have been concerned about for more than two decades. As the event unfolded, I vividly recalled public health experts expressing great concern when I worked on pandemic planning teams and attended training sessions, while serving with the Georgia Office of Homeland Security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Our agency’s pandemic expert, veterinarian Dr. Paul Williams, was particularly concerned about how rapidly various hybrid viruses could “jump” from animal species to humans, with devastating effects. Williams was recruited to the agency because veterinarians are very familiar with many of the biological organisms common to animals, and because of the potential for intentional use of biological agents by terrorists and other violent extremists.
Williams, Georgia Department of Public Health personnel, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others I worked with after being selected as the state anti-terrorism planner and later as the lead program manager for the terrorism division, were deeply concerned that the U.S. was highly exposed to the type of event we are experiencing today. State, federal public health, homeland security, and other agencies began dramatically ramping up efforts in this area.
At the time, experts like Williams were deeply concerned that as the horrors of Sept. 11 became more distant memories, the massive funding required to keep one of the world’s most populous nations safe from these biological black swan events would not be maintained. As the COVI-19 crisis has revealed, the costs of maintaining the personnel, equipment, supplies and other assets current, and keeping pace with new risks, research, technologies, medications, supplies, and equipment can be staggering.
While not a public health or medical expert, my training and work experience in planning and preparedness for epidemics and pandemics since 2001 has taught me that preparing school systems and non-public school systems for these types of events is a daunting and complex task. I was surprised by how dramatically the COVID-19 pandemic evolved. But I was not surprised that a situation of this scale could occur and that it has been so challenging for most countries to address.
The U.S. Department of Education, the CDC, and a variety of other state and federal agencies have for many years urged public school systems and non-public schools to develop robust written plans for epidemiological events as well as comprehensive and written business continuity/resilience plans. Unfortunately, very few of the more than 8,300 schools and school systems we have conducted school safety, security and emergency preparedness assessments for have had anything resembling viable plans of either type.
This is true in spite of the substantial array of free in-person training, web training, planning tools, guides, hundreds of millions of dollars in grant funding, and other resources that have been available for more than a decade.
Having reviewed public health and continuity of operations plans as part of our assessments, not only for over two-thirds of U.S. public school districts, which included six of the largest, I can attest that the opportunities for improvement have not been limited to small and mid-sized public and non-public K-12 organizations. While many of our clients have reacted to our findings that they were not properly prepared, they were typically also attempting to address an array of costly, pressing and time-intensive opportunities for improvement in other critical life-safety areas, with significant limitations of funding and staffing levels.
Browse a list of government and industry resource links for navigating the COVID-19 crisis at stnonline.com/safety-resources/#covid-19. Check individual state departments of education and public health agencies for additional free resources.
To further complicate the challenges school leaders face, the highly emotional, alarmist, statistically disproportionate, and often wildly inaccurate media coverage and social media discourse on active shooter incidents in schools has created a severe overemphasis on this very real risk. The available data tells us that these tragedies are responsible for far less than 1 percent of all fatalities on U.S. K-12 school campuses, and for a single fatality on a school bus in the U.S. to date. While active assailant events are high consequence events that we dare not ignore, the pervasive and often emotive focus on these tragedies has not only often resulted in ineffective prevention and preparedness measures for these extremely rare but horrific events. It has also significantly reduced expenditures for other far more common as well as for even more deadly types of school crisis events.
As every pupil transportation professional knows, great effort and care must be taken now, to accomplish one of the most challenging feats ever faced by our educational systems, when our schools are reopened.
Fortunately, there are considerable resources to help accomplish this. The dedicated public health professionals at the local, state and federal levels can provide free educational materials, planning resources and training. Although they are and will remain extremely busy for many months, they may be capable to provide free technical expertise that is unmatched in most parts of the world.
Now is the time to identify who needs to be at the table and what resources and tools can be used to get our nation’s yellow school buses up and running safely for the very challenging 2020-2021 school year. Your efforts to accomplish this are nothing short of instrumental in getting American students back to school so their parents can get back to work to enable our nation to recover from this devastating situation.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the May issue of School Transportation News.
Michael Dorn is the executive director of Safe Havens International, the world’s largest K-12 school safety center. The 2019 STN EXPO Reno keynote is the author of 28 books on school safety, Dorn’s work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 40 years. Safe Havens has helped hundreds of public and non-public schools and school systems evaluate, improve and develop pandemic and continuity of operations plans. More information is available at safehavensinternational.org.