H1N1 virus points out overdue investments in public schools

Education leaders have plenty of free advice for local schools about how best to prepare for what disease control experts say could be a serious flu outbreak this fall – but schools have precious little money to follow up on those recommendations.

With the Center for Disease Control projecting a severe outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus (a.k.a. “swine flu”) could affect up to 40% of the U.S. population, “schools should be ready with hard-copy packets and online lessons to keep learning going even if swine flu sickens large numbers of students,” according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

But its hard to imagine Washington school districts having the resources to put that advice into action after they’ve already cut back on everything from sports to teacher training, field trips and transportation just to get through this year.

Duncan and other leaders are apparently working with technology providers who “might offer technology”, “some of which could be free”, to help schools continue to offer online classes and materials to students home with the flu.

That may be the best short-term response we can expect in a crisis. But we need a proactive, long-run solution to make (and keep) that kind of technology available in every school and accessible to every child.

For example, what if states collectively negotiated with technology providers to make discounted licenses for that online teaching software available to school districts in bulk? Individual school districts could then match up the different products on the market and buy the software that best fits their needs.

Doing so wouldn’t solve Washington’s school funding problems (we need to fix our creaky tax structure to do that), but it would certainly generate greater public value for our tax dollars. It would also put more students in touch with the kinds of technology that will certainly be a part of their daily life at work and at home. And should a different health or environmental crisis arise in the future, our state’s schools will be much better prepared to meet the challenge.

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