Howard County schools have been fine-tuning their disaster preparedness plans for weeks, with staff training sessions, color-coded message systems and stockpiles of supplies.

"All we're really trying to do is be in a position to respond," said Superintendent John O'Rourke. "Nobody knows what to anticipate. . . . We're trying to strike a balance here between people being very apprehensive and people being complacent."

In time of war, that balancing act takes on greater urgency.

The morning after President Bush's March 17 address to the nation on Iraq, Oakland Mills High School Principal Marshall Peterson reviewed procedures with staff members who would act as "runners" to find students quickly if parents came to pick them up. Then he did a walk-through of the single-story building.

"It's not like we haven't had to go through the [disaster] implementation before," he said, referring to the school's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the sniper shootings last October. Students, he said are "used to the lockdowns."

At Dasher Green Elementary School, a few parents have brought in food, water and extra clothing to hold at the school for their children, just in case. Steve Drummond, Howard's coordinator of school security, said schools are equipped to shelter students about a day, but he anticipates help from county and federal agencies after that.

"We really want to release kids as quickly as possible to their parents," he said.

Communicating with classroom teachers has been a key planning feature for some schools. Dasher Green Principal Sue Goglia said her school will circulate emergency notices to teachers on pink paper to avoid alarming students with announcements over the public address system. The school also has stockpiled walkie-talkies and bullhorns. For now, Goglia doesn't allow staff to discuss the war in the front office in case children drop in.

"If you're calm, your staff's going to be calm, and your children are calm," she said.

At Gorman Crossing Elementary School, the school has developed a generic lesson plan in case a teacher needs to leave or cannot make it to school, said Principal Deborah Drown. That strategy emerged after the school, along with public safety organizations, took part in a training session involving a hypothetical "dirty bomb" explosion in Washington.

Still, in the midst of such disaster planning, some parents remain apprehensive. Lisbon Elementary School parent Steve Swanhart said he still has more questions than answers about the school system's emergency plan.

"I don't know what the situation is," he said. "While they may have a plan, if people don't know the plan, it's no good."

Inevitably, students have questions about their security as well.

Lamont Goode, Social Studies Department chairman at Oakland Mills, said his American government class watches CNN every day and then discusses current events. The day before the war began, that discussion carried into lunchtime as students barraged him with questions: Do you like President Bush? Do you think we're going to be attacked? What is the school doing? But despite their curiosity, Goode said students have remained calm.

After the Sept. 11 attacks and the sniper shootings, "they were petrified," he said. "Now, it's so far away. There's not a sense of urgency at this point, which is good. No one is panicking."

The school system's emergency preparedness plan can be accessed online at www.howard.k12.md.us.

"Nobody knows what to anticipate," said Howard County School Superintendent John O'Rourke.