Online learning might prove disruptive to education, but it also helped many schools avoid a disruption to the learning process as hundreds of schools closed temporarily amid swine-flu outbreaks in their communities.
As the H1N1 virus spread throughout the country, federal officials talked about the important role technology could play in keeping lessons going, even if schools were forced to shut down or students had to stay home for an extended period of time–giving rise to the term "continuity of learning."
Speaking at an elementary school on the first day of classes in Washington, D.C., this past fall, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said school leaders should evaluate what materials they have available for at-home learning as they create swine-flu contingency plans. The Education Department issued guidance with more details on the methods that schools could use, such as distributing recorded classes on podcasts and DVDs; creating take-home packets with up to 12 weeks of printed class material; or holding live classes via video-conferencing calls or webinars.
Answering a call from federal officials, several education technology providers made resources available to help keep instruction going in the event of a swine-flu outbreak. For instance, Microsoft launched a web site with videos and advice to help teachers quickly and easily set up a classroom page in Office Live Workspace, a free virtual workspace in which teachers can share content, lesson plans, and curriculum. And Pearson Education developed a "continuity of learning" plan of its own to help schools continue their students’ education outside the classroom.
During a webinar hosted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) in September, officials from several districts across the country discussed their school-closure procedures and plans for monitoring H1N1 outbreaks.
"Our H1N1 planning is aligned with our previous [emergency] plans," said Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer for Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, which has a history of planning for emergencies. Abshire’s district suffered much damage and saw its schools close as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"The first line of defense is accurate information," Abshire emphasized. The district’s web site displays an H1N1 status for each school, including suspected and confirmed cases. School leaders and key district administrators attend regular training with a district risk manager, and staff are in contact with regional health services personnel.
In case of prolonged H1N1 absences or school closures, the district developed separate plans for students who do, and do not, have home internet access. Students with internet access can stay on track through an "emergency assignments" link on the district’s Blackboard portal. Those who don’t have internet access can get assignments through the district’s call-in system.
"It’s important to make sure that networks and end communication systems are operational" in the event of a school emergency, said Linda Sharp, CoSN’s project director for crisis preparedness. "Schools need comprehensive plans for any type of emergency or crisis they could possibly experience."