By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Amid the inconvenience of a campus shutdown to slow the spread of swine flu, teachers at Rockville High School saw an opportunity.
Starting Friday, when health officials closed the Montgomery County school, administrators and faculty carried out an experiment that might be termed emergency distance learning.
Using the Internet, teachers handed out schoolwork, answered students' questions and planned for tests. By the time classes resumed yesterday, instruction had continued for nearly a week without anyone entering a classroom.
Four Washington area elementary schools that had closed because of flu concerns also reopened yesterday -- Vansville, University Park and Montpelier in Prince George's County and Folger McKinsey in Anne Arundel County. Our Lady of Victory, a Roman Catholic school in Northwest Washington, is to remain closed this week as a precaution.
Rockville High teachers never found out whether academic operations could have continued online, a scenario that seemed possible before federal officials downgraded the severity of the flu and relaxed restrictions on schools Tuesday. Nonetheless, the foray into virtual education showed how effortlessly students and teachers could move much of their routine o nto home computers and BlackBerrys.
"Would it have been as effective as a classroom? Of course not. But we could have kept our kids learning," Principal Debra Munk said.
Rockville High was the first school in the Washington region to close during the outbreak. At the peak Tuesday, at least 726 schools had closed nationwide. Most reopened yesterday, after federal health officials stopped advising schools to close.
Virginia health officials said they had determined that the H1N1 virus, which causes the illness, was no more dangerous than the flu that surfaced over the winter. They recommended that doctors test only those who are hospitalized, pregnant, elderly or younger than 5. "The virus is behaving very similarly to the seasonal influenza virus," said Jim Burns, Virginia's deputy commissioner for public health. "They have been very mild cases."
The campus closures underscored the value of online grading systems that have proliferated in public schools in the past few years. Through a system known as Edline, all secondary teachers in Montgomery can post assignments and grades, distribute homework and correspond with students. Munk said that every teacher at Rockville High used Edline during the closure.
"I posted assignments for students on the class Web page and provided documents for downloading," said Mark Bradley, an Advanced Placement math teacher. "Students could e-mail me with specific questions, as a few of them did these past few days."
Bradley said the major drawback was "that the instructor is not physically present" to explain homework and answer questions.
For Rockville students, the closure posed a major challenge. They had an SAT exam last weekend and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams this week and next. Graduation is June 2.
In Prince George's and Anne Arundel, educators said they were mostly concerned about state science assessment tests this week and how to get homework packets to students in the event of a long closure.
Prince George's officials discussed but never activated a plan to put packets online, which most families could have downloaded as PDFs from school Web sites. They also talked about sending the work home by old-fashioned mail to students who don't have Internet access or scheduling students to pick up the work at school. That, too, would have been a challenge, because health guidelines discouraged bringing students or faculty together.
"One of the concerns was, well, how many people are you going to let come to the school at one time?" said John White, Prince George's school spokesman.
Although the school closures ended, new cases have emerged. Yesterday, the District announced one confirmed case and three probable ones -- two students at George Washington University and a student at Simon Elementary School. Prince George's officials said that county had eight probable cases.
Staff writer Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.