The Swine Flu Pandemic - What do Schools Need to be Thinking

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Raising pupils’ attainment is not the only issue occupying the minds of school leaders. Many heads will also be thinking about how they can best support their staff and pupils in the event of a swine flu outbreak in their school. Headteacher, Eileen Field, looks at the issues schools face and how technology could be used to help minimise the impact of swine flu on pupils’ achievement.

The number of confirmed cases of swine flu is expected to rise across the UK as the autumn and winter months approach and there has been much debate, both in the media and throughout Whitehall, over how the government should respond in its attempt to contain the virus. 

It has been reported that politicians are unlikely to resort to wide-spread school closures in an effort to halt the progress of the pandemic because of the impact this might have on children’s learning and the possible disruption to society as a whole. However, some schools in the worst affected areas may still face the possibility of having to close. School leaders need to put plans in place now for every eventuality so that children experience minimal interruption to their education.

Keeping parents up to date
Ensuring there is adequate information available to parents and governors is an important part of a school’s response to the pandemic. This will prevent any uncertainty and reduce the number of calls coming through to the school office in the event of a swine flu outbreak. 

Your school’s website can be a highly effective way of ensuring vital information gets out to those that need it. A dedicated area could be set up online for the latest news updates, for example, and you could offer advice and guidance on the site for parents worried about swine flu. Some schools have introduced an additional option on their automated switch board where parents can leave a recorded message to let the school know their child has contracted the virus. You will want to ensure the most up to date contact details are on file for all staff and parents as this will be critical in the event of the school having to close.

Looking after the health and wellbeing of staff and pupils
There is the potential for considerable staff absence in the wake of the swine flu pandemic and the virus is expected to reach every school in its progress across the UK. Taking steps to actively curb the spread of swine flu amongst staff and pupils could make the difference between a school that remains open and one that is forced to close its doors.

When high numbers of teaching staff are not in school due to holiday, off-site educational trips or training, school leaders often take the route of merging classes or teaching large groups of children in an area such as the school hall. This approach is not advisable in a pandemic situation. Grouping pupils together can create an ideal environment for the spread of many illnesses and children are one of the groups most at risk of contracting the swine flu virus. It is important that any staff showing signs of infection are sent home quickly and children who become ill should be isolated in a comfortable medical room until they can be collected from school. You may want to emphasise the importance of practicing good hygiene in school to help slow the progress of the illness. 

School leaders need to ensure that any staff who are ill, or are caring for loved ones, get the time and support they need if they are unable to come into school. Care should also be taken to make sure those teachers who are still coming in to work are not being overburdened by increasing workloads in the effort to keep the school running.

Minimising disruption to pupils’ learning
The government expects all schools to provide a reasonable amount of education to their pupils if they are unable to attend normal lessons for an extended period. School leaders have been advised to make arrangements for children to be able to work from home, where necessary, to minimise disruption to the learning process. Good planning will be essential if schools are to meet this obligation and prevent pupils’ achievement from suffering as a result of swine flu.

There are a number of options you can consider, such as using the postal system or parental collection as a way of getting work to and from pupils at home. However, you will need to think about whether you have adequate teaching staff available onsite to compile the necessary worksheets and mark them on their return to school. Additionally, this approach may not provide the level of support pupils need to make progress in their learning.

Home tutors
You may consider using home tutors in your plans for coping with a fall in staff levels. This is a viable option if the number of children unable to attend school is small but you will need to discuss this with your local authority. You should also check that the services available provide the range and quality of subject-specialist teaching required to ensure learning is meaningful. 

The role of technology
Technology could play an important role in helping schools ensure their pupils’ learning can continue in the event that swine flu interrupts normal lessons. School leaders may want to explore the possibility of using e-mail as a way of getting work to pupils at home. Links to online resources could even be provided via social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter if appropriate security measures are put in place to safeguard children.

Video conferencing is also a potential solution for allowing pupils outside school to attend lessons, although this can be difficult to manage in larger groups and audio delays or other technical issues may disrupt the flow of a lesson. 

Learning platforms
Using technology such as a virtual learning environment (VLE) can be an effective way of ensuring students who cannot attend lessons as normal are provided with engaging learning opportunities online, either from a dedicated room in school or from home if the school must close. But to make this work, students need to have access to good quality online resources and the necessary technical support to help address any issues.

You should check that your school has sufficient online teaching resources available to meet pupils’ needs and ensure that these cover as wide a range of the curriculum as possible. Existing classroom worksheets and materials can be added to the VLE but teachers need to look at them with a critical eye to ensure they are visually stimulating and will be suitable for use online.

You may want to consider working in partnership with other schools in your area to boost the learning opportunities pupils have access to within the VLE. Additional logins can be set up that will allow pupils from different schools to access and share online content and this approach can be useful if a school is not as far along in developing its VLE capability as another in the neighbourhood. You will need to ensure there are no technical issues such as firewalls that could prevent a child from accessing their online learning materials from home so check this in advance.

Live online teaching
The provision of live online teaching can be a cost-effective way for schools to respond to the swine flu pandemic if they are under staffed or have been forced to close. This technology is traditionally provided by the local authority to teach children who have been excluded from school or those who have special educational or medical needs that prevent them from learning in a mainstream setting.

Some ‘online schools’ deliver up to 25 hours of curriculum matched teaching a week, which is taught by subject-specialists in real time. Pupils can log on to scheduled lessons from either inside or outside school and communicate with their teachers and peers using a headset or instant messaging, replicating the experience of group learning in a conventional classroom. One of the key advantages of using live teaching is that the implementation and testing of the technology is usually handled by the provider with minimal disruption to the school.

Live online ‘schools’ such as Accipio Learning also offer a comprehensive library of recorded lessons for each curriculum subject that has been delivered online throughout the academic year. This library resource includes homework activities for every lesson and can be incredibly useful for enabling a large number of pupils to continue their studies from home or in the absence of a subject-specialist teacher.  

Preparation is key
Whatever course the pandemic takes in the months to come, many school leaders will be concerned about the effect the swine flu virus will have on pupils’ attainment. Taking the time to put contingency plans in place now will help ensure you can give your pupils the best possible learning support, from either inside or beyond the school gates if necessary, and prevent swine flu from having an impact on their future achievement. 

Eileen Field is Headteacher of Accipio Learning, who provide live, online teaching to secondary school-aged children throughout the UK. www. accipio-learning.co.uk.

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