Bird Flu Alarm

2006-05-04-Bird flu emergency teaching plan gets skeptical reception

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-05-04-Bird flu emergency teaching plan gets skeptical reception

President Bush's plan to slow the spread of a deadly pandemic flu devotes seven of its 227 pages to what schools and colleges can do in case a 1918-style flu epidemic hits the USA.
Most of the recommendations, released Wednesday, are standard ? communicate, figure out who's in charge, encourage kids to wash their hands.

But one suggestion is a showstopper: If massive absences occur, the plan says, schools should develop "alternative procedures to ensure continuity of instruction."

That is, find other ways to hold class ? through the Internet, local TV, telephone trees or even sending lessons to students by U.S. mail.

Educators welcome the suggestion, but say it won't be easy.

"It's a good idea, but impractical," says Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, a group that represents college presidents. Darryl Alexander, who handles health issues for the American Federation of Teachers, agrees. "On paper, I think it's a fantastic idea. But it's going to take a lot of resources and the federal government is not offering any."

The plan aims to slow the spread of a deadly H5N1 virus, should it mutate into a strain that easily jumps from person to person. In the event of a major pandemic, it predicts, communities could see six to eight weeks of active infections, with schools a prime location for transmission.

Alexander says the plan offers no incentives for teachers and students to stay home when they're sick. "This is what will spread an influenza pandemic rapidly," she says. "Nobody's going to come to school with 'pandemic flu' written across their forehead."

There's little chance schools will need to resort to tactics such as virtual instruction this spring, because most classes let out by the end of May. In the unlikely event of a pandemic this spring, they'd simply close early.

In the long term, officials say, most schools have a way to go to be able to teach kids who aren't sitting in the classroom.

"A lot of places aren't geared up, and there's no way they can gear up in a timely fashion," says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Over the past decade, many schools and colleges have begun offering coursework online. But what's envisioned in the bird flu plan goes far beyond anything educators ever envisioned.

"This is terra incognita," New York University spokesman John Beckman says.

At NYU, professors already put a lot of material online. Although officials there have long planned for a possible outbreak, Beckman says he's not sure how they could replicate the online system on a wide scale. Even if they could, he says, "That's not how we envision NYU's education generally."

Schools have been quietly planning for bird flu for months, but they could get a kick-start Wednesday, the morning after ABC-TV airs the bird flu "what if" drama Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America.

"I think that's going to raise everybody's anxiety levels," Houston says.

Understanding Avian Influenza