Alison Yin for EdSource
Students have lunch at Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

Every day, we wake up to new stories about the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). More than a decade ago, there were similar headlines about another pandemic, the swine flu (H1N1), as it spread from Mexico into the United States.

Arun Ramanathan

At that time, I oversaw student services, including nursing and medical services, for the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest school district in California. Because of our proximity to the Mexico border, we were on the frontline of the pandemic.

Sure enough, one of our students was one of the first people infected with H1N1 in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flew a team to San Diego. As more cases appeared, they ordered the closure of two high schools and a middle school. Fortunately, we had planned for that possibility.

The lives of our parents and students were disrupted for a few days. But when no new cases appeared, and the threat H1N1 receded, life returned to normal. As I look back on that experience, there are four lessons I’d offer school district leaders today.

Start planning now. We established a pandemic response team that met weekly (sometimes more) and included representatives from nursing and medical services, special education and elementary and secondary schools, and operations, transportation and finance.

Our initial focus was on prevention, including training staff and providing up-to-date information through trusted messengers, our nurses and school principals. With the support of finance, operations and custodial, we purchased additional cleaning supplies, soap and hand sanitizer for classrooms.

Our next focus was communication and collaboration. We ensured clear lines of communication by establishing liaisons to county health and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). When questions arose, we went back to the medical professionals to verify and clarify our message. We identified the communication tools including our website and messaging systems that we’d use to update our community on the district response. Parent, students, teachers were concerned and heard the messages.

Finally, we focused on potential logistical challenges, including prepping our transportation department for disruptions of complex school bus pick-ups and drop-offs.

Make sure the effort is the top priority of the superintendent. We opened every superintendent cabinet meeting with a detailed presentation on our planning, the most current medical information on the pandemic, and expectations for each member of the leadership team if we had to close schools. We made sure that teachers had classwork they could send home with students and identified virtual learning options. We also made sure that our school board and unions and contractors were fully informed about the current situation and our plans.

Expect to close schools on short notice and cancel planned activities, and set expectations accordingly with students’ families. We received very little notice from the CDC on school closures — typically just a day in advance. If an infected student had a sibling at another school, then we had to close that one too. Our principals and educators knew that closures could happen but we didn’t know for how long. The same was true for school activities, such as sporting events.

Don’t expect certainty from the health professionals. It was very clear that the CDC was doing its best, but agency leaders couldn’t know what would happen next. They had limited tools (such as school closures) to stall the pandemic spread. Ultimately, district leaders will need to stand ready to make judgment calls based on the best available information.

School districts are more accustomed to natural disasters and have years of experience planning for them. In fact, a few years earlier, one of the largest wildfires in the history of California shut us down for two weeks. But we could see the fires, track their movements and assess their physical impact on our schools.

A virus is invisible, its impact uncertain. How do you plan for and respond to something that is inherently unpredictable?

As the coronavirus spreads, I’m sure many district leaders are thinking about these same issues.

Other nations already have taken extreme measures to halt the spread of the disease, including Japan, which closed all schools for a month. On Wednesday, a private school in Atherton (San Mateo County) closed through the weekend after a member of the school staff was exposed to the coronavirus. While there have been few cases and deaths in the United States, the CDC has said that the spread of the virus is inevitable. Our response should be just as proactive as our planning for natural disasters.

H1N1 didn’t become a major crisis in the United States and it is possible that will prove to be the case for the coronavirus as well. Right now, we don’t know.

All we can do is prepare. That work needs to start today in every district and county in California and across the nation.

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Arun K. Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to raise academic achievement in public schools.

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