School Climate & Safety

E-Learning’s Potential Scrutinized in Flu Crisis

By Katie Ash & Michelle R. Davis — May 12, 2009 8 min read
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The closing of hundreds of U.S. schools in recent weeks because of concerns about swine flu underscores the need for administrators to make plans for continuing their students’ education during any extended shutdown, emergency experts and federal officials say.

Fears about a severe flu pandemic had eased as of late last week, but experts say school officials should not just breathe a sigh of relief. They should now review their emergency plans and look, in particular, at how prepared they are for using technology to provide instruction and keep lines of communication open.

“Just because the campus is closed doesn’t mean learning has to come to a halt,” said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. “It’s much easier for us to all stay in touch with each other these days.”

Continuity of Education

Experts advise administrators to take these steps so students can keep learning when school are closed.

Work on a crisis plan that includes measures for continuing some form of education in the event of a lengthy shutdown. Preparations may include instructing students to use home computers to complete online lessons or having photocopied packets of work students can keep at home.

Use online resources such as the U.S. Department of Education’s free subject and grade-specific lessons that are aligned with state standards, at, or similar online lessons available from the Smithsonian Institution.

Evaluate the telecommunications infrastructure to see how schools can communicate with teachers, parents, and students in an emergency. Explore ways that the infrastructure could be harnessed to distribute instructional information.

Make sure teachers are prepared for emergencies, so they will know what to do and what the district expects of them. Provide them with information and resources about how to prepare students for a school closing, such as encouraging students to take home school materials each night if they are expecting a school closing and telling them how they can get in touch with officials or teachers in the event of a shutdown.

SOURCE: Education Week

At the peak, so far, of concerns about the spread of swine flu, some 726 public and nonpublic schools across the country were closed, according to the Education Department. (“Swine Flu Disruption Has School Officials Looking for Lessons,” May 13, 2009.)

“Schools at all levels should be using this time to prepare for a possible swine flu pandemic, with online instruction being an important option to consider,” Thomas E. Chandler, the manager of technology and educational applications for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said in an April 30 e-mail as worries about the infectious viral disease were escalating.

Public schools receiving federal funds under the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities program of the No Child Left Behind Act are required to have an emergency or crisis plan in place, Mr. Ritsch said, and most public schools receive at least a small portion of funding under the act.

The law doesn’t lay out specific requirements for such a plan, however. A 2008 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 95 percent of schools had such plans, but they might not include contingencies for continuing education when schools are closed for extended periods.

The Education Department is encouraging the use of e-mail and recorded messages to both update parents and keep students at least partially on task, Mr. Ritsch said. He said the department had heard that some districts were preparing in low-tech ways by copying handouts and gathering assignments that could be tackled if schools were shuttered.

To aid in such planning, the department has a list of resources for teachers and parents that includes subject-matter lessons aligned with state standards. Those lessons can be accessed by students online, Mr. Ritsch said.

In addition, new technologies such as podcasting, and Web sites such as YouTube, have made it easier to deliver education via the Internet, said Mr. Chandler, although he acknowledged that many schools would face major hurdles reaching all students through such methods because of a lack of technological infrastructure and resources.

For example, not all students have adequate access to the broadband telecommunications lines needed to make use of such technologies, said David Dezendorf, the emergency-management director for Townshend, Vt., and a member of the local school board, which oversees the 91-student Townshend Elementary School. And younger students may not have the technical skills to make use of the resources, he added.

Better Prepared

Because of a heightened emphasis on safety and emergency preparedness over the past decade, partly because of events such as the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many experts believe schools are now much better prepared to handle crises than they once were.

“This day and age, ... schools are at a state of readiness that’s unsurpassed in the history of education,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, a professional organization for district-level leaders.

Detailed emergency plans are available from agencies such as the federal Education Department, he said, and advances in telecommunications have made it much easier for administrators to stay in touch with teachers, parents, and students.

Fostering open and honest communication with parents and staff members, and being proactive about disseminating information as it becomes available, are key parts of handling any emergency situation, said Nancy M. Davenport, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals. She is the principal of Kingston Elementary School in Virginia Beach, Va.

Still, although most schools have emergency plans, not all schools have considered how to keep education going when their buildings are forced to close, said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va.

The 130,000-student San Diego Unified School District had two schools closed due to suspected H1N1 flu virus—which initially and more commonly has been referred to as swine flu in the health crisis of recent weeks—but they reopened May 6 after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidelines for dealing with the sickness.

Before it was announced the schools were reopening, staff members there were just starting to grapple with ways to keep education going if the schools remained closed for up to two weeks, as earlier CDC guidance had advised, said Jack Brandais, a spokesman for the district.

The district has no overall plan for how to keep learning on track when schools are closed for extended periods, he said. Mr. Brandais said the district left it up to individual schools to determine the best ways to deal with such situations.

Learning at Home

Other school systems, such as the 80,000-student Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas, which closed for seven school days because of 14 confirmed swine flu cases at eight schools in the district, had measures in place intended to make sure students continued to learn.

In addition to keeping its district Web site up to date with emergency information and instructional-review materials for students, the district tapped its television station to help deliver lessons, called Sofa Studies. Teachers from across the district reviewed lessons in half-hour blocks, which were then broadcast on TV for students to watch at home.

The lessons were strictly for review purposes and did not count for school credit, said Clint Bond, a district spokesman.

More informally, a group of students from Michael Sanderson’s 8th grade science class at Milton L. Kirkpatrick Middle School in Fort Worth created a “study chain” through text messages. That arrangement allowed them to send questions back and forth to one another while studying for their Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test in science, which was in the process of being rescheduled once the students returned to school.

“They just decided on their own that they were going to continue studying,” said Mr. Sanderson, who was brought into the study chain when his students encountered a question they couldn’t answer on their own.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education, which serves 80 school districts and some 2 million students in its part of California, has drafted and pulled together many resources, including materials on “continuity of education,” to help guide districts through extended school closures.

In preparation for such emergencies, schools are instructed to evaluate their communications systems, identify community partners that could help deliver instruction, become familiar with independent-study guidelines, and anticipate multiple scenarios, says the document.

During a flu pandemic, for instance, instruction could be supported through various technologies, such as the Internet, telephone, radio, TV, text messaging via cellphones, e-mail, and podcasts, suggests the material on continuity of education.

Leveraging Laptops

Mark Warschauer, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, says the availability of laptop computers can make a big difference when schools are closed.

“Being able to come to school is better, but having access to schoolwork and assignments at home through computers and the Internet is better than just staying home and being disconnected,” he said.

Schools that already have 1-to-1 laptop programs, which aim to provide a portable computer for each student, clearly have an advantage in situations in which they are compelled to close.

In Iowa’s 400-student Central City Community Schools, a rural district north of Cedar Rapids, all students in grades 5-12 have laptop computers. If the district were to be shuttered for an extended time, Superintendent John A. Dotson said, educators there would tap that technology to continue teaching in those grades.

In the Irving Independent School District in Texas, each high school student has his or her own school-issued laptop, which could be used to keep up with schoolwork if a flu pandemic or other emergency led to extended closings, said Alice E. Owen, the executive director of technology for the 33,000-student district.

In addition, teachers and administrators can access their schools’ networks from their home computers through a virtual private network, said Ms. Owen.

About 80 miles north of Montreal, the Eastern Townships School Board schools in Canada has had a pandemic-flu plan in place that instructs teachers to remain in contact with their students through the Internet in case of flu-related closings or other emergencies, said Rod Canuel, the 6,300-student district’s director general.

Starting in grade 3, all students in the district are provided with their own portable computers that they take home each evening. Teachers have been instructed to tell students what Web sites to visit to continue communication.

“There’s an important link between structure and schools, which establishes a sense of normalcy in a very potentially abnormal situation,” Mr. Canuel said.

He said he has been overwhelmed by educators from other districts who want to see Eastern Township’s pandemic-flu plan, whether those districts have laptop initiatives in place or not.

In places that don’t, districts are still looking at how they might use their own existing technology, such as students’ cellphones and home computers, to remain connected to students, Mr. Canuel said.

Library Director Kathryn Dorko contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week as E-Learning’s Potential Scrutinized In Flu Crisis


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