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Educators share H1N1 preparedness plans

Schools are urged to prepare in advance of an H1N1 outbreak.
Schools are urged to prepare in advance of an H1N1 outbreak.

As H1N1 virus-related illnesses continue to increase, schools are hoping to keep students healthy and avoid closures–but many already have plans in place to sustain learning and keep students on track if prolonged absences or school closures become a reality.

During a webinar hosted late last month by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), officials from several districts across the country discussed their school-closure procedures and plans for monitoring H1N1 outbreaks.

“The department believes technology has an important role to play in education, and the current H1N1 pandemic is an example of the role that technology can play,” said Larkin Tackett, with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement.

Tackett said Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes schools should focus on maintaining the continuity of learning in the midst of H1N1 outbreaks, using print and online resources to help achieve this goal.

For homebound students, educators should prepare hard-copy packets and/or online materials, record class meetings, or virtually pull students into live classes, Tackett said. He said school leaders also should think about how to provide non-instructional services online, such as college-counseling support.

Communication is key in continuing learning during prolonged absences or school closures. School leaders must determine how affected parties will communicate, how students will understand and access available academic resources and other supports from home, what equipment and resources are available or will need to be acquired to enable school and district learning plans to continue, and what additional training might be necessary for teachers to respond adequately.

“We recognize that available resources are going to play a part in determining how each school will respond, and schools are approaching things with different resource levels,” Tackett said.

Potential avenues to consider include digital instructional tools, phone or video conferencing, webinar support, online courses and virtual classrooms, and virtual server capacity.

Harold Rowe, associate superintendent for technology and school services with Texas’ Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, said his district used its emergency notification system, school web site, and television channel when it closed on short notice as a result of the H1N1 outbreak in the spring.

“We expedited requests to online content providers and developed our own online materials as rapidly as we could,” Rowe said. The 81-campus, 104,000-student district also refreshed print materials and made copies as quickly as possible.

The district was closed only for a short period of time, but Rowe said preparation for another possible closure remains comprehensive.

“We continue to develop staff distance-learning skills and digitize our business process,” he said. District personnel are working on locally developed online resources, including teacher web pages, and are leveraging the internal Moodle infrastructure and student portal. (Moodle is a free, open-source online learning management system for schools and colleges.)

In addition, the district has a set of laptops that it uses to provide home services for homebound students, and Rowe said he is examining how those might come in handy if students must stay home owing to H1N1 infection.

Administrators with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which has 670 schools and more than 400,000 students, are monitoring student health on a daily basis, sending H1N1 information packets to principals and parents, and giving all schools kits with hand sanitizers, tissues, thermometers, and face masks.

Robert Runcie, chief administrative officer, said CPS produces a daily health report from its student information system that examines absence patterns and suspected H1N1 cases. If a large number of students are absent in any school, CPS officials will call parents of students in that school and log those absences into an H1N1 database.

“Just based on the volume of students, we can’t, as a district, vaccinate all our students, but we’re working in partnerships with other health agencies to arrange vaccinations as needed,” Runcie said.

School nurses and students who are pregnant or have medical concerns, such as diabetes and asthma, will be vaccinated, he said.

Some schools have experience implementing disaster plans as a result of hurricanes, school shootings, and any number of unplanned events.

“Our H1N1 planning is aligned with our previous plans,” said Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer of Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, which 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 said. 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.

“Staff confidence in being able to handle something like this has really gone a long way in the district,” Abshire said.

In case of prolonged H1N1 absences or school closures, the district has developed plans both for students who do and students who do not have home-internet access.

Students with internet access will be able to stay on track through an “emergency assignments” link on the district’s Blackboard portal. Those who do not have internet access will be able to obtain 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.

Sharp said documenting your district’s actions in an emergency can be valuable for future planning, and it can be especially helpful for other districts that might be able to learn from your experience.

“Schools need comprehensive plans for any type of emergency or crisis that they could possibly experience,” Sharp said.


Consortium for School Networking

U.S. Department of Education H1N1 page

Discovery Education H1N1 information

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Preparing for a Pandemic resource center. With fears about the H1N1 virus, commonly known as “swine flu,” putting school leaders on high alert, we’ve compiled this collection of news stories and additional resources to keep you up to date on the latest developments in this critical story–and to help you deal with the crisis in your own schools. Go to: Preparing for a Pandemic

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