As Swine Flu Closes Schools, Tech. Could Keep Doors to Learning Open

By Katie Ash & Michelle R. Davis — May 01, 2009 7 min read
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As a growing number of schools temporarily close their doors in an effort to prevent the spread of swine flu, administrators are taking a closer look at the role of technology in delivering education during school closures.

Nearly 300 schools around the country had closed as of April 30 as a result of the flu, according to the Associated Press. States with closings include California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, South Carolina, and Texas. In addition, all high school sports in Texas and Alabama were suspended, according to Associated Press reports.

“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 e-mail. “And if swine flu does not materialize as a major pandemic, having an online distance-learning plan in place will always be useful, in the event of the next [crisis]. This issue is not going away.”

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

For example, not all students have adequate access to broadband telecommunications 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.

“[Online education] may not work for all the grades, and it isn’t going to work for all the subjects,” he said, especially in the early grades, such as K-2, when students may not have the technical knowledge to make use of the resources.

Crisis-Preparedness Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Consortium for School Networking’s IT Crisis Preparedness Initiative

Los Angeles County Office of Education’s Emergency Preparedness Continuity of Instruction Resources

Los Angeles County Office of Education’s General Emergency Resources

U.S. government’s Web site on flu information

U.S. Department of Education’s Web site on influenza

Still, technologies like Skype, a Web-based software application that allows users to make phone calls over the Internet, and so-called Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis—which can be accessed by users regardless of what operating system or platform they are using—could be helpful in fostering communication between teachers and students during extended school closures, Mr. Dezendorf said.

John Krouskoff, the director of instructional technology for the 9,400-student Clarkstown Central School District in New York state, uses School Web Lockers, a commercial product that serves as a digital dropbox for students, to foster communication between students and teachers.

“We started using it last year as a way to eliminate the students’ using Web mail accounts,” said Mr. Krouskoff. But in light of current concerns, the infrastructure could be used to continue education even if students weren’t physically in school, he said.

Leveraging Laptops

Mark Warschauer, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, says laptop computers can make a 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. “You could certainly approximate a classroom situation, particularly if it were for a shorter period of time.”

Mr. Warschauer said one of the main obstacles is that, although students may have access to laptops, not everyone has an Internet connection at home. But the possibility of staying connected to schools and teachers during a shutdown does add to the long list of positives that such technology can provide to educators and students, 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 like the one schools are facing now because of concerns about the spread of a new strain of flu.

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 period because of swine flu, Superintendent John A. Dotson said, educators there would tap that technology to continue teaching in those grades.

“The older students would be able to keep going with the educational process,” he said. “They’d be able to use their teachers’ Web sites to get assignments and turn them in” through e-mail or other electronic means.

In fact, he said, many teachers in the district have already gone “paperless.”

Teachers also leave assignments for students through blogs and Web sites if they are absent for a professional day, Mr. Dotson said. “It’s just another way of using technology in education,” he said.

However, Mr. Dotson said he’d be unsure whether the district would be forced to make up those days out of school, even if students continued working on assignments. The state could take the view that if school was closed, none of those days would count toward the required number of school days per year, he said.

Learning From Home

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

“Students could access all the course material online and still continue to do some work at home,” she said.

In addition, teachers can access their schools’ networks from their home computers through a virtual private network, said Ms. Owen, which gives them the opportunity to keep up with schoolwork as well.

About 80 miles north of Montreal, the Eastern Townships School Board schools in Canada have had an emergency plan to deal with a flu pandemic in place for more than two years. It was created to prepare for bird flu, but officials there are refreshing it as they face the possibility of swine flu reaching their schools, said Ron Canuel, the 6,300-student district’s director general.

“We are big-time ahead of the game,” Mr. Canuel said.

The Eastern Townships district has a laptop initiative in place: Starting in grade 3, all students have their own portable computers they take home each evening. The district’s pandemic plan instructs teachers to remain in contact with their students through the Internet in case of flu-related closings.

Teachers have been instructed to tell students what Web sites to visit to continue communication. “There’s an important link between students and schools, which establishes a sense of normalcy in a very potentially abnormal situation,” Mr. Canuel said.

Mr. Canuel said district officials are leaving it to schools and teachers, though, to decide what that communication should look like—whether it means some lessons or just a place to vent and voice concerns. “If students are removed from the school, let’s try to keep that link between students and teachers,” he said.

Mr. Canuel said he has been overwhelmed by educators from other districts who want to see Eastern Townships’ pandemic 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.

Planning Ahead

Continuity of education in a crisis is not something that can be ensured at the last minute, cautions Linda Sharp, the director of the IT Crisis Preparedness Initiative at the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking.

“If the schools have not planned in advance how they can deliver education or communication, then they’re really in a dilemma,” she said. “This is not something you can plan when you’re in the middle of the issue.”

For example, simply keeping phone numbers and e-mail addresses of parents and students updated is an essential step that many schools neglect, she said.

“And if you don’t have clean data, it’s very difficult to do mass communication,” Ms. Sharp said.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education, or LACOE, which serves 80 school districts and some 2 million students, has recognized the need for crisis preparedness. Consequently, the agency has drafted and pulled together many resources, including materials on continuity of education, to help guide districts through extended school closures.

In preparation, schools should 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 pandemic, instruction could be supported through various technologies, such as the Internet, telephone, radio, television, text messaging and cellphones, e-mail, and podcasts, suggests the material.

“We started this a couple years ago, when we were talking about avian flu,” said Raynette Sanchez, the division director of curriculum and instructional services for LACOE.

“While we don’t deliver instruction or administer student instructional programs online, we do want to be able to support districts as they do their planning [for pandemic flu],” she said.

Dotti Ysais, the project director of Distance and Online Learning for LACOE, said teachers and students could also communicate through blogs, e-mail, discussion boards, and podcasts.

“Teachers can use that in their classroom, or in a pandemic situation,” she said.

Editorial Projects in Education librarian Kathryn Dorko contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week

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