The H1N1 flu pandemic served notice to districts to get their disaster readiness strategies in order. Many are using technology solutions to head off or respond to emergencies, and prevent a cessation of learning.
In late April, as public fears about a mysterious new strain of flu grew, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) moved to forestall a panic.
Because many of the district’s students have familial ties to cities in Mexico where the virus first emerged, the issue hit home locally. On Monday, April 27, just after US health officials declared a public emergency, calls flooded district phone lines from parents who wanted to know if schools were closed and if their children were safe.
With the help of the Blackboard Connect platform, the country’s second-biggest school district contacted more than 713,000 parents, educators, and administrators, assuring recipients that the schools had no known cases of swine flu, custodians were washing sites more frequently, and officials were working closely with the local public health department. The message, recorded in both Spanish and English, also urged people to wash their hands frequently, cover their mouths when they coughed or sneezed, and to keep ill children at home. That same week, K-12 school districts sent out roughly 3.9 million swine flu outreach messages over Blackboard Connect—by home phone, cell phone, text message, and e-mail—at the height of the initial concern.
“There was a lot of uncertainty,” says Paul Ishimaru, LAUSD’s chief technology director. “Messages went out so that everyone would be on the same page.”
The effort had the intended calming effect. Incoming calls to LAUSD about swine flu soon subsided.
The district’s response to the H1N1 outbreak is a prime instance of how technology has become instrumental to administrators’ efforts to stay on top of their staff and students’ health and safety, whether spreading critical information when widespread illness strikes, helping prepare for potential crises, or carrying out crucial functions in the midst or aftermath of an emergency.
When schools started up again in the fall, so too did their attempts to apprehend the spread of the flu, prompting more mass notifications in the cause of prevention. Schools around the country dispatched more than 18 million H1N1-related messages through Blackboard Connect, more than 2 million of which came from LAUSD alone, alerting parents to vaccinate their children and reminding them of hygiene tips.
In the past, Ishimaru says, if his district needed critical information to reach its constituents, the central office faxed a flyer to schools, which in turn made and distributed copies of it into teachers’ mail slots and posted them in the main office. But there was no way of tracking whether the messages had been received by students and their parents and guardians. Now those emergency notifications go out en masse—strictly by phone for the time being, Ishimaru says. The district is still working toward taking advantage of Connect’s text and e-mail functionality. But the speed at which the phone calls go out is doing the job. Within 45 minutes a million calls are sent, generating a report showing whether the call was answered, went to voicemail, or received a busy signal or a hang-up. Blackboard makes available translators who can record notifications in other languages—an important feature for Los Angeles schools, which count Vietnamese, Armenian, Tagalog, Farsi, Korean, Chinese, and more among the languages spoken by their students and parents.
Closing all US schools for four weeks would cause economic losses of $10 billion to $47 billion, according to a report by the Brookings Institute (brookings.edu), a think tank based in Washington, DC. Included in these calculations are lost teacher salaries and the value of work missed by parents forced to stay home to look after their children.
Blackboard Connect provides administrators with other critical capabilities as well. In an emergency, a superintendent can make a single call to dozens of officials, rather than making calls sequentially—a once time-consuming process. The system allows officials to send an unlimited number of messages, requires no additional hardware, and can be used from any computer with internet access.
In addition to keeping families informed about H1N1, LAUSD has used the technology to send out the latest details about fast-changing situations, when the safety of students is most at risk. During a series of wildfires in August and September, the district contacted parents about what sites were closed and when they reopened.
“We have multiple numbers in the contact system,” Ishimaru says. “It calls all the numbers to ensure it reaches someone. We’ll call the mother at her work and her cell phone number. We communicate within a fraction of the time it took in previous years.”
For schools with far-flung borders, mass communication tools take on special importance during emergencies. Bedford Area School District, in rural central Pennsylvania, has 2,400 students plus 170 teachers and administrators spread out over 300 square miles.
With Teo’s E911 Emergency Awareness Solution, selected staff and administrators at Bedford are notified immediately when calls are made to 911 from the school’s IP phone system. Calls trigger a text message detailing where and when a call was made, along with an e-mail to recipients in areas where cell phone service is sparse. That’s a major upgrade over the conventional telecommunication systems at many schools, which rely on private branch exchange (PBX) technologies that connect to individual extensions throughout the facilities. Calls made to 911 from within don’t typically provide their exact location, which can hinder response time.
The value of the more powerful IP system was apparent at a Saturday night wrestling tournament in Bedford. At the heart of the district, the high school gym acts as a community center, with events almost nightly. When a student broke his leg during a match, someone placed a 911 call through Teo from the gymnasium phone. School officials, including the principal, soon arrived.
“We arrived there the same time the ambulance did,” says Glenn Burket, Bedford’s technology coordinator. The fast response was important, protecting the school from liability, and also sent an important message.
“The principal walking out of the building with the kids to the ambulance shows what kind of caring staff our school has,” says Burket, a former wrestling coach whose own children were students in the district.
The system also tracks 911 calls, keeping tallies and making recordings that will be stored for at least five years for Bedford. The district can access and share the recordings with law enforcement, the school board, and other parties.
Ideally, schools will use technology to avert health and safety emergencies rather than respond to them. But often, as in the case of the swine flu, the technology develops in step with the crisis.
With H1N1 cases starting to swell, PublicSchoolWorks, a producer of safety and compliance programs, created two online flu pandemic courses that became available last spring for administrators and staff.
“There was a lot of initial panic and a flurry of activity from the World Health Organization and others around the globe,” says Tom Strasburger, vice president of the Cincinnati-based company. “We jumped on it.”
The courses, which take about 20 minutes to complete, provide an additional tool in a district’s crisis planning and management and are designed to help school districts stay out in front of flu outbreaks. Included is information about safe rooms, how far people with suspected illness should be segregated from others, and how to communicate with staff and the community without creating a panic. The training also provides links to resources such as Flu.gov and the local health department. The program is geared toward administrators and takes into consideration the additional responsibilities of principals, food service supervisors, and others in authority positions.
Reading Community Schools, in suburban Cincinnati, began requiring its staff to take the pandemic training in the fall. “It’s a lot of common-sense information, not rocket science, but it’s about getting the information in front of people and reinforcing it,” says Cary Furniss, the district’s treasurer.
The flu module is part of PublicSchoolWorks’ EmployeeSafe Suite, an automated online safety and compliance program that facilitates the administration of safety training, regulatory compliance, and accident management for school personnel. The program allows incidents to be tracked and reported so that administrators can see where accidents are occurring and help put a stop to them. The suite includes written plans, programs, procedures, checklists, and other tools.
When a student broke his leg during a wrestling match, a 911 call placed through the school’s IP phone system triggered a text message to school officials, who soon arrived on the scene.
Furniss describes how his district used to conduct emergency preparedness training: “We had the old ‘sit and get,’ with everyone seated in hard chairs staring at the front of the room at speakers and videos,” he says. “It was very prescriptive. We’ve learned that kids don’t learn that way, but we still taught adults that way. It wasn’t effective.”
Pulling staff together all at once from Reading’s three campuses wasn’t practical, forcing the trainers—nurses, administrators, and other staff—to conduct multiple sessions. Teachers must be trained in all kinds of potential threats and cirumstances: blood-borne pathogens, asbestos awareness, hazard communication, use of chemicals. Keeping track of who had satisfied the various requirements was another paperwork headache.
“While training is important and necessary, it’s not what our core business is,” Furniss says. “It’s learning.”
The web-based EmployeeSafe training is available through an online system that e-mails personnel with notifications of scheduled courses and reminders to complete them. Staff and educators can access the courses at their convenience, from any computer, at home or at school. A management report indicates who has not yet finished the courses and met the requirements.
“It puts users in the driver’s seat,” says Furniss, who notes that the training provides transcripts and certificates that can be included in an educator’s professional development portfolio. The program improves efficiency and saves money, Furniss adds, by freeing a district from having to spend a whole day conducting training or hiring substitute personnel while teachers are out at a session.
Questionnaire: How Ready Are You?
In October, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL; inacol.org ) unveiled a new “Continuity of Learning” page on its website that provides advice for administrators on how to prepare for school closures caused by the H1N1 virus, fires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.
Resources include a readiness assessment questionnaire drawn from the expertise of the association’s 3,500 members. Questions include: “Do you know which students have a computer and internet at home?”; “Do teachers know how to collect student work?”; and “Have you considered partnering with community leaders, organizations, and businesses in planning for delivery of instruction to ensure learning continuity during pandemic or disaster situations?”
The web page, which receives thousands of hits daily, includes frameworks of learning, case studies of state and district plans, and archived events presentations. Short-term solutions include using phone conferencing, web conferencing, and learning management systems to communicate with students and to post assignments. INACOL recommends that districts teach parents and students, along with faculty and staff, how to access learning tools from home.
Aside from H1N1, EmployeeSafe courses include training on proper lifting, ladder safety, lice outbreaks, cyberbullying, and other health and safety issues that schools face. Programs can be customized to include any tools or content provided by individual school districts. More courses are under development, including how to respond to bomb threats and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have grown in the public’s consciousness as a result of their use in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A companion to EmployeeSafe is StudentWatch Suite, which helps administrators implement board policies and government regulations to manage student issues, behavior problems, and injuries. The software’s reporting system gives parents and students anonymous ways to express their safety concerns (such as about bullying), online or by telephone. The program logs inspections, creating records that can be forwarded to the local fire and health departments.
“Before, it was all done by hand,” Furniss says. “If anything was to occur and we needed to provide documentation on paper, it could have been lost, but [now] it’s all backed up.”
Despite training and other advance preparations, schools still can be forced to close for safety reasons. Learning management systems enable them to continue the instructional process.
Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools regularly uses Blackboard’s LMS to extend education and important information online. Teachers post homework assignments and communicate with students through blogs and other discussion tools. “It’s an extremely valuable resource,” says Mike Foland, the district’s project manager, “available any time when a student is available to engage in learning.”
In the wake of the swine flu scare, the district developed a contingency plan that built upon these existing capabilities. Entitled “Keep on Learning,” the site—organized by grade level and by subject—provides roughly four days of curriculum in the event of a health and safety emergency that results in an unexpected closure. For example, the math module provides activities and links to websites to help students understand concepts, lessons that parents can oversee at home.
“We’ve prepopulated the site with instructional material available to students in the event that teachers can’t update their pages,” says Fairfax’s instructional technology coordinator, Derek Kelley. “Once the school reopens, teachers can check the students’ understanding.” If a closure is prolonged, the school can add activities, lesson plans, and other materials to the site.
Such was the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, which caused Clear Creek Independent School District, near Houston, to shut down for nearly two weeks. Teachers and students communicated and completed tasks using the Blackboard LMS, even while school buildings were closed.
“Going forward, we know we can keep kids from falling behind,” says Chad Stevens, the district’s CTO. “We can continue the business of education without interruption.”
One source whose continuity-of-learning practices US schools would be wise to take from resides abroad. Since the SARS scare in 2003, when it was at the nexus of the outbreak of the disease, Singapore has made putting all instructional materials online an important goal of its disaster planning. At least once a year, as a drill for potential pandemics, Singapore’s secondary schools shut down for a week and lessons are conducted wholly online. The plan aims to support uninterrupted academic work and to prevent the spread of infection or illness by limiting physical contact.
“It’s an international best practice,” says Susan Patrick, president and chief executive of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). “Such preparations have wide-ranging benefits. Building these systems allows for professional development and getting information out in a variety of conditions. So it’s a win-win for day-to-day instruction, too.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of THE Journal.