The Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP) Team, a consortium of more than 30 ed-tech providers, associations, and foundations, was created in late 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged Gulf Coast schools. Besides mobilizing assistance to help these schools rebuild for the 21st century, HELP Team members also have been forming a plan to help schools better prepare for hurricanes and other such disasters. (For more information about the HELP Team’s work, see our Special Report, “HELP Arrives.”)

Now, the group is setting its sights on pandemic preparedness as well.

Having a plan in place as soon as possible is an important priority for every school district, says Terry Smithson, HELP Team manager and education strategist at Intel Corp. “As evidenced by New Orleans, you can think that nothing is going to happen to you, but a tornado, hurricane, or flu [pandemic] can hit you tomorrow and close every school. It’s too late to start worrying about putting a plan together at that point,” he says.

Chaired by Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of the North American Council for Online Learning, the Pandemic Preparedness Committee has set four goals that it aims to fulfill:

•Develop a team of education professionals who have experience in helping with education disasters;

•Analyze the resources available for schools in a pandemic-related emergency;

•Develop a guide and framework for schools to follow in preparing for such a contingency; and

•Provide assistance to the education community in the event of a pandemic, by providing curriculum and instruction to enable learning to continue when school campuses are closed.

The committee held its first meeting Nov. 20 and is now in the analyzing stage of its work. “We’ve been pulling resources together, identifying what states are doing for disaster planning for a pandemic, and creating a framework that schools can use to better plan for the possibility of a pandemic,” says Patrick.

The committee’s ultimate intent is for school leaders to be able to “go to the HELP Team web site and find a checklist for what they should be doing to help them get through [an outbreak] the easiest way they can,” Smithson added.

While the government has set up a web site and checklist for schools to deal with the threat of an avian flu outbreak, Patrick says it is missing many key elements, such as the use of technology to support the continuity of learning. As a result, the HELP Team has been working closely with Hudson La Force, senior counselor to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, and one of the driving forces behind setting up the committee.

What the committee is focusing on in particular is the continuation of learning if students are sent home for an undetermined amount of time, should a flu outbreak actually occur.

“We want to ensure that, if students are asked to stay home for one day, two days, two weeks, or [even] months, we have thought through the possible scenarios and prepared schools to be ready, as well as identified the ways in which students can continue the learning process,” says Patrick. “One of the few ways that the learning process can continue in the event that students and teachers cannot physically come to a school building is to use online learning and other educational technologies.”

“I believe virtual schools play a critical role in any disaster relief plan for schools, but as we have learned from Katrina, it is best if schools have planned ahead so immediate implementation can take place,” says Julie Young, president and CEO of the Florida Virtual School and a member of the Pandemic Preparedness Committee. “Establishing all of these details can take time and, as we all know, time is the one thing everyone is short of during a crisis.”

Many issues would need to be resolved before such plans could take effect. If school districts plan to have their current staff members act as online educators in the event of an outbreak, these educators would need to be trained how to teach in an online environment. In addition, school districts must make sure they can even set up a distance-education environment.

“We’re looking at people who have expertise in networking and setting up one-to-one mobile environments,” says Patrick. “We’re looking at ways that we can help prepare teachers to teach in that environment, if they need to.”

Although much of the planning revolves around virtual classes, the HELP Team also is examining other ways to sustain learning with minimal interruption. Telecommunications and satellite partners would be needed to provide communications and networking services to homes in case of an outbreak, says Smithson. The postal service is another potential partner, because some students might have to take tests at home and mail them in.

As part of its planning, the committee intends to give school leaders a variety of options for how to ensure the continuity of learning. “All of these things need to be put together, but there’s not one answer to be forced upon,” says Smithson. “The right way is to present all of the solutions available. You have to have multiple vehicles and multiple solutions than can address each of those areas, and that is what the committee will focus on.”

The committee hopes to have its research and analysis completed before its next meeting, and to have some sort of guide or checklist available by January.

Links:

HELP Team
http://www.educationhelpteam.org/

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net/

Federal Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist
http://www.pandemicflu.gov/plan/schoolchecklist.html