If Flu Strikes, Education Will Move Online

by Liz Pape

I was surprised, when attending a recent conference of educational administrators in Barcelona, Spain, conducted by the European Council of International Schools, to learn of the extent of planning that schools there are undertaking to prepare for a potential flu pandemic.

Schools across Europe are developing plans to ensure education can continue outside of school buildings through online education should the avian flu virus shut down facilities and make daily attendance impossible. School leaders in Europe are providing classroom teachers with online teaching skills and ensuring appropriate technology is in place in the event of a long-term interruption of educational services in school buildings.

These schools plan to test their online delivery procedures now before they are in emergency mode to ensure teachers know their usernames and passwords, can access their schoolÕs online platform and can upload lessons plans from school and home.

Stateside Guidance
This past May, the U.S. government released its Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Plan. The School District Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist ( calls for the continuity of student learning and core operations, recommending schools "develop alternative procedures to assure continuity of instruction (e.g., web-based distance instruction, telephone trees, mailed lessons and assignments, instruction via local radio or television stations) in the event of district school closures."

In addition, the recommendations for influenza pandemic prepardness, developed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control, call for a continuity of communications via dedicated websites.
TThe government's checklist does not address how American schools might move instruction online. Questions such as these are left to state and local school leaders to answer: What are the skills teachers should develop for continuing education outside of the classroom? What are the considerations school administrators need to make to meet the requirements of assuring continuity of instruction via web-based distance instruction?

Assuming the school or district does not have an online course or a virtual school initiative in place now, how will teachers be able to get content onto the website during a pandemic or other large-scale disaster, such as a blizzard, flood or tornado? What guidelines and standards will be available to them as they try to develop web-based content such as assignments and course syllabus? How will they manage an online discussion forum?

Several years ago some classroom teachers in Fairfax County, Va., were able to continue the educational process during snow days by using web-enhanced instruction — providing assignments that students accessed from home and engaging students in topical discussions in online, web-based forums.

Students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County assisted students at an international school in Pakistan whose education had been interrupted when their school was evacuated due to political unrest. Teachers from the Pakistan school were able to continue instruction with their relocated students through the Blackboard learning platform, which the students at Jefferson helped set up and troubleshoot.

Preparatory Work
Web-based distance instruction requires a web-based course management system, online content and teachers with the necessary skills to instruct online. Administrators need to proactively put those required elements in place before the emergency occurs. With the availability of open-source systems like Moodle, cost should no longer be an issue for licensing a content management system. However, the question of where to host the system and the content need consideration.

If the content management system is hosted on file servers within the school buildings, what happens if the building is taken over by an emergency services organization, perhaps to serve as a hospital or some other type of health facility? Will the servers still be accessible to school staff for maintenance, rebooting, etc.? If the server is outside of the school district, there are probably additional costs associated with leasing the server, space and support. If a proprietary system is selected, is hosting included? What plans does the vendor have in place for redundant systems in case of catastrophic emergency?

Guidelines and standards for the look of online content and for accessibility should be developed and reviewed with instructional staff as part of the planning process so teachers can develop appropriate content for possible use in an emergency. With a course management system in place and standards to guide online content, teachers will need professional development and support as they build and practice their required online teaching skills. Those skills include the ability to post assignments, lessons and learning resources; develop online assessments; use an online grading system; support and foster online discussions; and support student collaborative learning activities.

Like our international peers, we ought to commence the planning process for the continuation of educational services should the need arise.