Are Schools Prepared to Respond to a Pandemic?

Schools and colleges across the nation are closing their doors, sending students home, and moving to online or other forms of instruction in response to growing concerns about the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. 

In our prior reports, we have reviewed how K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities, prepare to protect students and staff from threats like pandemics—and how the federal government can help.

Today’s WatchBlog explores.

K-12 schools

State and local laws and requirements continue to guide districts and schools when planning for and managing emergencies. The federal government’s role in school emergency management has been to support state and local activities, by providing guidance, training, equipment, and funding to help districts and schools respond to emergencies effectively. Therefore, K-12 schools and their districts create emergency management plans, but may choose to use federal resources to inform their efforts.

When we last surveyed school districts about emergency planning in 2015, we found that most K-12 school districts had emergency operation plans to respond to multiple threats and hazards. About 70% of school districts had plans specifically for responding to infectious diseases. However, only half of school districts specified how they would maintain continuous operations or recover after an incident.

In our work, we have made recommendations to federal agencies on how they could best support K-12 local efforts. For example, in 2015, we recommended that the Department of Education meet with federal agency partners to develop a strategic approach for helping schools prepare for emergency situations.

In response to this recommendation, several federal agencies joined forces in August 2016 to develop the Federal Partnership in School Emergency Management and Preparedness (FPSEMP) — whose mission is to promote coordination and collaboration of federal agencies in order to assist K-12 schools and school districts in their school emergency management and preparedness efforts. In March 2017, the Steering Committee approved the goals and objectives developed by the Task Force to support the charter.

More recently, several federal agencies collaborated to launch a new federal website, www.schoolsafety.gov, to help schools prevent, protect, mitigate, respond to, and recover from emergency situations. The website contains a section on emergency planning, and, noting the GAO’s 2016 findings, recommends that every district or school develop and implement a comprehensive school emergency operations plan that describe the actions that students, teachers, and school staff should take before, during, and after emergency events.

Colleges and universities

We interviewed 18 colleges in 2018 about their efforts to prepare for emergencies. All of these institutions reported developing emergency plans to address a range of emergencies. Colleges and universities often have sprawling campuses and on- and off-campus housing—so managing an emergency includes developing multiple communications strategies. To publicize emergency plans, officials reported using websites, text messages, presentations, and drills.

The federal government also provides resources to help these institutions prepare for and respond to emergencies. However, college officials and the organizations that support them, described mixed awareness of federal resources, especially those specifically tailored to colleges.

We recommended that DHS, DOJ, and Education work together to more effectively publicize emergency preparedness resources to colleges. The President’s 2018 Commission on School Safety recommended similar efforts. In early 2020, federal agencies launched schoolsafety.gov, which consolidates resources from multiple federal agencies, making it easier for both K12 schools and colleges to learn about and access available resources.

To learn more about COVID-19 and what the U.S. government is doing to respond to it, visit https://www.coronavirus.gov and https://www.usa.gov/coronavirus. For a Spanish translation, visit https://gobierno.usa.gov/coronavirus.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at nowickij@gao.gov.
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