Do You Have a Disaster Plan?

By Naomi Dillon

An ice storm in Kentucky knocks out power to more than a third of the state, killing 36 people. The FBI thwarts a terrorist attack on New York City’s transit system. The World Health Organization declares the H1N1 virus a pandemic.

If it seems like Americans are dealing with one crisis after another, you’re not imagining it. But as school leaders know, it’s not just the strong who survive in uncertain times, but the ones who can envision the uncertain, prepare and plan for it, then do it all over again.

“As we found out in 9/11, we need to sit down to anticipate and do scenario planning of what is far-fetched,” says Tom Watkins, a consultant and media personality who has served as the director of both the education and health departments for Michigan. “We need to think and reflect not just about what is, but what could be. The last thing we want to do, as the hallways are filled with smoke, is to be looking around for the nearest exit.”

This is especially true in education, where catastrophes -- natural, man-made, and sometimes unique to schools -- can be exacerbated or even caused by limited resources and the population that districts serve.

Take food contamination, for example. Annually, only about 3 percent of the 76 million cases of food poisoning occur at schools, but children’s developing bodies are the most susceptible to the damage tainted food can cause. Of the 700 people hospitalized by this year’s salmonella-tinged peanut butter, for instance, half were children. In 2008, 143 million pounds of tainted beef were recalled, a quarter of which had been sold to schools.

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