As any high school principal will tell you, when the phone rings at 11:30 on a Thursday night, it’s usually not good—particularly when the voice on the other end of the line is your superintendent. After one such call in May, I learned that an issue newspapers had reported earlier that week as a problem in faraway Mexico was suddenly my problem. A student at my school had been diagnosed with a “probable” case of swine flu. As a consequence, Rockville High School, in Montgomery County, Md., was to be closed the next day, for an undetermined period of time.
Wide awake at that news, my mind began to spin. It was time to alert my administrative team and other key players in the school, and to compose an automatic phone message to be sent out early the next morning to students and staff members. That would take care of notifying the community of the closing, but it was only the first of many actions that would be required to bring a bustling high school program to a halt.
By Friday morning, I realized that I had more questions than answers. Our school, for instance, is an SAT testing site, and students from all over the county were registered to take the assessment here on Saturday. Could the test be moved to another location? How would we contact those scheduled to take the exam who were not our students? And what would we do about our own Advanced Placement exams that were scheduled to begin on Monday? There were other, broader questions, too. Which staff members could work in the building? How would the building’s service workers rid surfaces of any virus? Although there were no athletic contests scheduled at the school, would our track and tennis athletes be permitted to participate in the upcoming regional and state competitions? If the school closing continued for several weeks, could instruction be delivered in an alternate way?
Answering these questions took a team of committed educators, both inside and outside our building. While our superintendent worked valiantly with state health officials to expedite the reopening of our school, members of his staff flew into action—a definite benefit of our being part of a large school system. The district’s information officer helped manage the media, whose members converged on our school Friday morning. The director of high school instruction worked on getting the SAT testing site moved to our feeder middle school and contacted all students registered to take the exam at this site. The state department of health ultimately granted us permission to conduct the AP exams at an alternate site, but required that our students be isolated from those of the other school and sit at desks six feet apart. Our building’s service personnel were cleared to clean the school with a water-and-bleach solution. But our athletes were not permitted to take part in competitions while the school was closed.
With the most immediate problems resolved, the question of how to maintain an instructional program remained. By Monday, the prospect of the school’s being closed for several weeks appeared quite probable. The instructional leadership team, meeting early on Tuesday morning (and seated six feet apart), developed a distance-learning plan making use of the school’s technology—the automated phone system, Edline (an online grading and assignment-posting program), the school’s Web site, the parent-teacher-student association’s listserv, and even the electronic sign in front of the building. By the end of the day, teachers began, using Edline, to post assignments and communicate deadlines for the submission of completed work to their students. An automated phone call to all families explained the new method of delivering instruction, and notified parents who had no access to a computer that they could call the school to obtain packets of hard copies of their students’ assignments. We updated instructional information frequently on the school’s Web site, PTSA listserv, and electronic sign. Three days after the school was closed, we had developed a way to continue instruction until regular classes could resume.
Fortunately, the state health department permitted us to reopen on Wednesday, so our distance-learning operation was never fully utilized. But because of our experience in May, we feel prepared to implement an alternative instructional program should the swine flu, more formally known as the H1N1 virus, revisit our school in the fall.
Based on our experience, the following information could be useful to other schools faced with the prospect of closing because of a pandemic or other serious health threat.
• Keep a record of students and staff members with flu-like symptoms to track the rate of infection in the building.
• Automatic phone systems, online grading and assignment programs, Web sites, and e-mail are critical technological tools for effectively dealing with a school closing. Ensuring that staff and student phone numbers are current is an ongoing challenge, but the accuracy of those numbers is essential in the case of an emergency.
• Frequent communication with the community during an incident of this kind maintains calm and minimizes rumors. Communication about health-related information should include protocols for good hygiene to minimize the spread of the disease.
• Posting student assignments online and developing a system to distribute hard copies of lessons and assignments for families without computer access are essential. Teachers should routinely post assignments online, so that the process would not be new to students in the event of a school closing.
• Establishing timelines for assignments and developing a process for students to turn in assignments and receive feedback and graded work are critical components of the distance-learning process.
• Deciding in advance the role of every staff member in the event of a closing will facilitate the transition from traditional instruction to distance learning.
• The needs of special education students must be addressed during this time, which will include differentiating instruction, ensuring that individualized education programs are followed, and holding Educational Management Team, or EMT, meetings and annual reviews at alternative sites, if necessary.
The health and safety of students and staff members are top priorities for all schools, and more school closings may be required in the fall flu season to limit the spread of disease. As we learned at Rockville High School, however, closing school does not have to stop learning. With today’s technologies, that can continue even when school doors are shut.