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Originally published September 30, 2009 at 12:06 AM | Page modified September 30, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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Schools turn to new ways to teach kids during closures

Many schools are preparing everything from paper homework packets to higher-tech options to keep students on task during an emergency shutdown.

Times Snohomish County reporter

With almost 20 percent of students out last week with suspected cases of the swine flu, Lake Washington Girls Middle School, a small, private school in Seattle's Central Area, sent assignments to ill students via the school's wiki — an interactive Web site that allows them to keep up with their classes even if they can't do all the work.

"Our parents and students are trained to go to our site. All the resources are there," said Patricia Hearn, head of the 54-student school.

But while many private schools in the region have been practicing distance learning in the event of a natural disaster or pandemic for several years, many public schools are only now beginning to ask how they might continue their students' education during an extended school closure.

The U.S. Department of Education in August recommended that school districts develop a range of strategies to keep students learning. They include paper homework packets that parents could pick up, telephone check-ins, e-mail and video conferencing as well as higher tech options such as digital versions of textbooks and assignments and Web streaming of prerecorded classroom lessons.

The closure in spring of more than 700 schools around the country, including nine in Washington, after the outbreak of the H1N1 virus, has given new urgency to schools' ability to keep students on task if schools have to shut down.

Public-school officials say they face challenges that their private counterparts don't: Some students may not have computers at home or Internet access. Not all students or their families speak English. And public-school teachers may have limited tech support.

"Teacher training is the biggest issue. If you have a managable-sized staff, you can gear up fairly easily. For the public schools, it would be a massive undertaking," said Vince Alkire, director of technology for Archbishop Murphy High School, which started requiring students to periodically work from home three years ago when an international outbreak of avian flu raised the prospect of widespread illness.

To date, the H1N1 virus has proved to be no more severe than seasonal influenza. Public-health officials now say that there is no public-health benefit in closing schools. But with classes back in session, the virus is re-emerging and spreading quickly.

Two schools in Snohomish County and 20 in King County last week reported absenteeism of more than 10 percent, according to public-health officials.

At Washington State University in Pullman, the flu broke out almost as soon as classes began in late August. Within three weeks, more than 2,600 students had reported flu symptoms, according to university officials.

Those numbers are subsiding, but some public schools in the area are now reporting 20 percent of students absent, said Whitman County Health officer Timothy Moody.

"Usually, we would not see any influenza illness this time of year. It amazed me how quickly it spread," Moody said.

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Despite the changed policy on school closures, some schools still may be forced to close if a critical number of teachers or support staff such as bus drivers fall ill, said Kathryn Reith, spokeswoman for the 23,500-student Lake Washington School District.

Reith said that budget cuts have left staffing levels at a minimum, although the district is trying to deepen its pool of substitutes.

Asked how the district is planning to deliver classroom lessons in the event of a school closure, Reith said, "We aren't.

"We really can't guarantee that every one of our students has access to a computer, and we don't want to be inequitable," she said.

Seattle Public Schools received a federal grant last year that included money to develop an emergency distance-learning plan, said Pegi McEvoy, who is coordinating the district's H1N1 response. She said the goal is for the district to provide classroom teachers with two weeks' worth of lessons that could be delivered through a variety of means, including paper packets and Web-based technologies.

The district is now tackling how to translate those materials into nine languages so parents can help their children at home. She said the district can't rely solely on an Internet-based strategy because a natural disaster such as an earthquake or flood could knock out transmission.

"We have to be aware that in an emergency, there may not be power to run computers," McEvoy said.

At private schools, it's a different story.

Forest Ridge, a Catholic girls middle and high school in Bellevue, already has used snow days and teacher in-service days — days when teachers are in training but students are off — to practice distance learning. Faculty is required to post assignments; students are required to log in and complete their school work during the day.

"We have a lot of Microsoft families, a lot of tech families," spokeswoman Peggy O'Connor said. "Our expectation is that on any given day, students could work from home."

At Archbishop Murphy High School in Mill Creek, teachers use a Web-based, interactive software called "Moodle" for distance learning. The school schedules Moodle days twice a year and, as at Forest Ridge, students are required to log on and complete course work.

Some teachers already use the system as a regular part of their class. Gail Wellenstein, who teaches Advanced Placement Biology and Anatomy, said she regularly posts assignments to the site so students can study concepts in advance of labs.

But she cautioned that the approach demands a great deal of initial work on the teacher's part to prepare materials and upload them into the system.

And the online resources don't work well for every subject. Anatomy, for example, requires classroom dissection and doesn't easily translate to the Web, she said. Similarly, advanced math classes require symbols that aren't on standard keyboards, making it hard for students to complete work.

Still, the student responses to the Moodle days have been largely positive.

"Other than the fact that tech problems always arise, it's been a great tool," said Elaine Nguyen, a junior at Archbishop Murphy. Nguyen said her French teacher set up an electronic discussion board where students at their own homes typed responses — in French — to the question, "What did you do on your summer vacation?"

Students in her math class held a communal review session for a test, remotely. And in her Advanced Placement Biology course, she said, students study new material in advance of labs.

"It saves us so much time to have gone over the concepts at home," Nguyen said.

Some school districts, such as Everett, say individual teachers are experimenting with software such as Moodle to communicate with absent students, assign homework and answer questions.

But others, including the Lake Washington School District, are just now getting teachers help building Web sites and haven't begun to implement the virtual-school strategies the federal government recommends for an extended closure.

"Eventually, we'd love to do that, but right now, it's not a reality," Reith said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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