The nation’s schools, recognized incubators of respiratory diseases among children, are being told to plan for the possibility of an outbreak of bird flu–and technology is likely to play a key role in such plans.

Federal health and education leaders say it is not alarmist or premature for schools to begin preparing for the possibility of an outbreak of bird flu, such as finding ways to teach students even if they’ve all been sent home.

School boards and superintendents have gotten used to emergency planning for student violence, terrorism, or severe weather. Pandemic preparation, though, is a new one.

Officials say technology could play a key role in responding to such an emergency situation–from coordinating community efforts, to keeping parents informed, to continuing students’ education in the event of a school closing.

“Whether it’s a pandemic flu or other health crisis, this is [simply] one variation on the disaster planning schools are [doing] anyway,” said Tim Magner, director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). “Working with public health and law enforcement officials is a large part of what [schools] should be doing [already] to prep for disasters.”

Though many people talk about disaster preparation, Magner said he is not certain this preparation is carried out as much as officials would hope.

“As a technology director [in a public school system, before joining ED], we had blizzards that would close down school for a couple of days. Our ability to communicate with administrators, teachers, parents, and students required a fair amount of preparation,” he said.

Bird flu is the name for the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian flu. It remains primarily a contagious bird disease. Typically spread from direct contact with contaminated birds, it has infected more than 170 people and killed roughly 100. None of those cases occurred in the United States, but officials say bird flu is likely to arrive this year in birds. Experts fear the virus could change into a form that moves beyond fowl, infects humans, and then passes easily among people–although there are no reports that this has happened, and it might not.

As outbreaks among birds have hit Africa, Asia, and Europe, officials have launched campaigns to educate the public. To help stop the spread of the disease, farmers have killed tens of millions of chickens and turkeys.

“If New Orleans and Katrina taught us nothing else, it taught us you need to be thinking about things ahead of time–and [prepare] for the worst,” said Stephen Bounds, director of legal and policy services for the Maryland Association of School Boards.

Recently, in North Carolina, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings joined Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt to encourage schools to prepare. Spellings said schools must be aware that they might have to close their buildings–or that their schools might need to be used as makeshift hospitals, quarantine sites, or vaccination centers.

The government has created checklists on preparation and response steps, specialized for preschools, grade schools, high schools, and colleges. The dominant theme is the need for coordination among local, state, and federal officials.

Some of the advice is common sense, like urging students to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze to keep infection from spreading. Other steps would take schools considerable time to figure out, such as legal and communication issues.

ED’s tech director, Magner, said the department has not made any specific recommendations as to how technology can best be used to help respond to such a crisis. Instead, he said, it is important for school leaders to understand the technology they have in place locally and the communication needs of their community when planning for a possible pandemic–or any other emergency situation.

“Communications bears some looking at,” Magner said. “The existing infrastructure school districts have might include telephone systems, eMail systems, web portals, outbound calling systems, [or other communications tools]. A whole range of tools exists that are being primarily or exclusively used for instruction that could be repurposed to provide information to parents, students, teachers, and administrators [in the event of an emergency]. It’s important for folks to start there as they begin to look at their outreach activities.”

Any school closings that occur because of an outbreak of avian flu might not last for just a day or two. A shutdown probably would have to last a month or longer to be effective, said flu specialist Ira Longini, a faculty member at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“The school itself plays a big role,” said Longini. “It’s just a massive mixing ground for respiratory illness.”

ED’s Magner noted that 36 percent of schools now have distance-education technology in place, and these schools could use this equipment to teach students during periods when it is not safe for children to attend school.

Susan Patrick, former educational technology director for ED and now president and CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning, said her organization has been in touch with ED and HHS to discuss how eLearning and virtual schools are “a very good solution for continuing education” in the event of a health emergency requiring quarantine.

“If, for emergency purposes, schools were to close, students would be able to continue their course of study uninterrupted, regardless of location and with mobility,” Patrick said. “This is a powerful solution to consider, [one that] provides additional access and opportunities to [level] the playing field.”

She continued: “Avian flu is a scary possibility on the horizon, and [if such an outbreak were to occur,] traditional, face-to-face models of instruction [would] be obliterated. Models of teaching and learning that provide fully redesigned courses and high-quality instruction through an online delivery mode, such as virtual schools, [would] be perfectly suited to continue a student’s path toward learning and achievement.”

In Massachusetts, school administrators are considering using an automated phone bank to announce homework assignments and update parents. Another plan would use the internet for communication between students and their teachers.

But those plans are limited, and many places have had budget cuts in technology, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near having a systemic way of approaching this,” he said.

At the college level, the American Council on Education, a higher-education umbrella group, has alerted thousands of college presidents about the need to prepare for bird flu.

Federal health leaders have advised each college to establish a pandemic response team and plan for outbreak scenarios that could close or quarantine their campuses.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

U.S. Pandemic Flu information web site (maintained by Department of Health and Human Services)
http://www.pandemicflu.gov

Flu Planning page for schools
http://www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/tab5.html

Maryland Association of School Boards
http://www.mabe.org

North American Council for Online Learning
http://www.nacol.org

Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents
http://www.massupt.org

American Council on Education
http://www.acenet.edu