Student Well-Being Opinion

For Ebola, Planning Is Better Than Panic

By Contributing Blogger — November 03, 2014 6 min read
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Ebola virus image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control

By Arun Ramanathan

When I hear the news about schools in Dallas dealing with students who may have been exposed to Ebola, I’m reminded of the last scary disease that crossed our borders and threatened our schools. It was called H1/N, popularly known as the Swine Flu. As the Chief of Student Services in San Diego Unified, with responsibility for both nursing and health services, I was in charge of organizing the district’s emergency response to the potential pandemic.

The news reports were pretty grim. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were dying in Mexico. In the beginning no one knew exactly what the disease was. It spread through the air like the common flu and seemed especially deadly to children.

In my office, less than an hour from the Mexican border, I was worried. The district didn’t need another crisis. We were on our third superintendent in four years and had just been through two painful budget cuts after the 2008 financial collapse. In 2006, the massive San Diego wildfires had forced the closure of all 200 of our schools and the evacuation of two-thirds of our staff from their homes. Now there was this new plague. There was something horribly biblical about it.

We weren’t going to wait for the worst

Fortunately, the district had learned important lessons from previous disasters. We weren’t going to wait for the worst to happen. With 130,000 students, many of whom regularly crossed the Mexican border, we knew that first cases were probably days from hitting our schools.

Taking a page from our fire response, we focused on four main areas: planning, preparation, communication and coordination. Fortunately, we had some advantages. Our medical professional included 100 nurses and a physician who worked district-wide. Our communications infrastructure was capable of sending email and phone messages both district-wide and to specific neighborhoods. Our county, district, and city agencies were experienced at coordinating on emergency response. Most importantly we had amazing district staff, principals and teachers and a leader, Supt. Terry Grier (now superintendent in Houston) who was willing to prioritize emergency planning.

This leadership was absolutely vital. A large urban school district is more than schools, teachers and students. It is a massive machine with many moving parts from food services, to transportation to custodial staff. In normal times these parts run in predictable patterns. In a crisis, the parts suddenly and abruptly shift. Without preparation and planning for those shifts, the whole system can grind to a halt. But planning requires time and attention and getting both from the heads of multiple departments can be challenging.

With Terry’s support, we were able to pull district leadership together to begin planning our emergency response. We appointed a single health liaison to the County and the Centers for Disease Control and began each meeting by having our medical experts tell us everything they had learned about the flu and the local, state and national response.

We started regular external and internal communications using our website, communication system and our school nurses. Custodial leadership began planning for increased cleaning of school sites and the distribution of additional supplies and soap to classrooms. Finance began calculating costs and identifying funding sources. Transportation began planning to reroute its complex bus routes in the case of an evacuation in order to get kids home. The superintendent kept the school board and unions informed and engaged. The rest of the leadership began communicating about next steps in our emergency response to principals and department managers.

The first cases hit

When the first cases hit, we were prepared. Several students were diagnosed with the flu and the County Health Department at the behest of the CDC ordered us to close three large schools. Thousands of students and their siblings (who attended other schools) were ordered to go home. Before the end of the school day, our entire district leadership and the three affected principals met at our emergency operations center.

Instead of panicking, we moved through the same agenda as our crisis planning meetings, starting with the medical experts and then working through the communication and logistical needs of the school principals. We went forward with the closures; the principals took care of their students, parents and teachers; central office departments managed transportation and logistical issues; and we immediately began to communicate vital information to community about our crisis response.

Not everything went smoothly. Advice and directives from the County Health Department and the CDC constantly changed, including directives about who to send home and for how long. It drove us crazy but I also understood that these folks were under tremendous pressure, doing the best they could with limited information about a disease they clearly didn’t fully understand.

Clear lesson for Ebola planning

In the end, H1N1 wasn’t the monstrous pandemic we all feared. More kids got sick. But our schools quickly re-opened. We didn’t have to close any more, and everyone went back to work. Thinking back, there are clear lessons for how school districts should plan for Ebola and other disease outbreaks.

  1. It starts with leadership. When emergency planning is a priority for the superintendent, it usually becomes a priority for the district. Preparing a plan can’t just be the responsibility of the health professionals. It has to consider all of the operational parts of the system with a clear understanding of the cost and where that money will come from.
  2. Clear and consistent communication before, during and after a crisis is absolutely critical. And that communication can’t just be delivered by leaders on high. It has to come from the “the boots on the ground”, the principals and school nurses closest to parents, teachers and kids.
  3. Part of the plan has to be to plan for the unexpected: for the inevitable course shifts that happen during an evolving crisis, when information and recommendations can change by the day, hour and even minute.

In the end, in spite of all the media hype, Ebola may turn out like H1N1. Even so, we must prepare for the possibility that Ebola or some other pandemic will threaten the children and adults in our school systems. We should begin planning for this threat just like we do for more visible threats posed by earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and fires.


Arun Ramanathan is CEO of Pivot Learning Partners, California’s largest non-profit provider of technical assistance and support to school districts in common core implementation, leadership development and education finance. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have two children in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified. He can be reached at aramanathan@pivotlearningpartners.org

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