Tuesday, August 25, 2009

If the flu outbreak this fall is as widespread as some experts fear, students who stay home should use Web conferencing and podcasting technologies to try to stay current - a federal recommendation that could be too advanced for some poorer school districts to take advantage of.

The six-page guidelines issued by the Department of Education on Monday suggest closed-circuit television, DVDs and Internet usage, among other technology, to get information to students in anticipation of high absentee rates and temporary school shutdowns because of a flu outbreak.

But some families in inner cities like the District, where the announcement was made, might lack the means to follow the suggested federal guidelines.

“It would be very difficult,” said William Lockridge, D.C. State Board of Education representative for Wards 7 and 8, areas of the city east of the Anacostia River that tend to have higher rates of poverty. “Living in an economically depressed community, a lot of kids and parents don’t have access to computers. It would be very hard to get students information from the Internet or other methods through computers.”

Mr. Lockridge spoke about children waiting in line to access the few computers at the public library.

“If you can’t afford a computer, you can’t afford the access to the Internet,” he said.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the recommendations on Monday at a press conference outside H.D. Cooke Elementary School in Northwest Washington. He appeared with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and city schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee shortly before classes began to mark the first day of school and to discuss the effects that the H1N1 virus, which causes what is widely known as swine flu, could have on schools this year.

“Principals and teachers need to be prepared,” Mr. Duncan said. “Packages of learning materials need to be ready to send home to students. There need to be online resources for students to learn from at home. Teachers need to know how to contact parents and students to monitor their progress. And they need to provide tutorials over the phone and online.”

The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology on Monday released a report that assessed the country’s preparedness for the H1N1 virus. According to Associated Press reports, the panel predicted that 20 percent to 40 percent of the U.S. population will suffer swine flu symptoms this fall and estimated that the virus will cause between 30,000 and 90,000 deaths, concentrated among children and young adults. The panel also recommended that at least 40 million doses of the vaccine be available by mid-September.

The recommendations say officials are “mindful that available resources will play a part in determining how each school creates its continuity of learning plan” and also suggest more traditional options for getting materials to students, including hard-copy versions of reference materials, take-home assignments, teacher check-ins and tutorials.

Lisa Raymond, D.C. State Board of Education president, said it is important for those implementing the plans to bridge the “digital divide,” a term commonly used to describe the gap between those who have access to information through technology and those who do not.

“It’s important for the District to meet the needs of all of their students,” Mrs. Raymond said. “Some schools and some parents won’t have access to that technology. Those schools should get the educational support they would need.”

Virginia-based Association of Teacher Educators is a mentor program that prepares teachers for the classroom. Executive Director David Ritchey said schools are being proactive in providing all students access to technology.

“Not only are costs coming down, but there’s a lot more effort to provide electronic advantages to those who were missing them before in order to cross that digital divide,” Mr. Ritchey said. “Some are going to have more access than others, but schools are doing as much as they can.”

Mrs. Sebelius addressed ways to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus, which has killed at least 522 people and hospitalized nearly 8,000 nationwide as of Thursday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, headache, chills and fatigue. Severe illness and death have been associated with the virus.

“What we know about the virus is it transmits very, very quickly,” Mrs. Sebelius said. “Vaccines are currently in clinical trials, which are going very well. We’re not going to be administering any vaccine that hasn’t proven to be effective, but those tests are under way right now.”

The vaccine is expected to be ready by mid-October, she added.

The federal government anticipates that some schools will temporarily shut down.

“We must make sure learning continues if the flu virus spreads,” Mr. Duncan said. “That is hugely important.”

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