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.

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 passes easily among people.

As outbreaks 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.

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.”

Tim Magner, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, noted that 36 percent of schools now have distance-education technology in place, and schools could use this equipment to teach students during periods when it is not safe for children to attend school.

Susan Patrick, Magner’s predecessor who is 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 can be “a very good solution for continuing education” in the event of a health emergency requiring quarantine.

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.