Schools Told to Prepare for Bird Flu

This story from the Washington Post is really about the LUS fiber project and the (for now) hidden costs BellSouth’s legal tactics are imposing on our community.

Sure, on the face of it, the story is about federal health experts directing local school districts to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic of bird flu to strike the United States. But, it is also about what could be Lafayette’s secret weapon to dampen the social and economic impact of such a pandemic on our community should it strike.

That secret weapon is the LUS fiber project.

Here are key passages that hint at the challenges such a pandemic could cause:

Who coordinates decisions on closing schools or quarantining kids? If classes shut down for weeks, how will a district keep kids from falling behind? Who will keep the payroll running, or ease the fear of parents, or provide food to children who count on school meals?

Then there’s this from North Carolina:

In North Carolina on Tuesday, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings joined Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to encourage schools to prepare. Spellings said schools must be aware that they may have to close their buildings _ or that their schools may need to be used as makeshift hospitals, quarantine sites or vaccination centers.

The biggest challenge would be how to keep the education process going during a state of quarantine:

Children age 5 to 18 tend to be the biggest spreaders of flu viruses in the community, experts say. Schools may be ordered to close to prevent spreading the disease.

In Massachusetts, school administrators are considering using an automated phone bank to announce homework assignments and update parents. Another plan would use the Internet for communication between students and their teachers.

Ah, there it is: “use Internet for communications between students and their teachers.”

The fact is that existing telecommunications infrastructure is not adequate to sustain heavy traffic for any extended period of time. See the report on the attacks of 9/11/01 and what happened in the wake of Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast.

As anyone who has ever communicated via email knows, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face contact, particularly in relaying critical information. It’s a poor substitute because everything relies on how good one is at conveying information via typed words and how good another is at interpreting the meaning of those same words. Email is weaker than a phone conversation because in a phone conversation the listener can hear inflection and emphasis. Email is decent, but it is fairly ineffective because it is so ‘thin’ compared to the richer context of signals and meaning that get conveyed in a normal face-to-face encounter.

So, imagine the quality of, say, education when the sole communication between students and teachers is via email.

What the LUS fiber system offers Lafayette is a robust network architecture which could allow live streaming audio and video delivery of classroom instruction using the kind of rich media environment that can both engage students and convey knowledge to them.

According to the Lafayette Parish School System website, there are more than 30,000 students in the public schools in Lafayette. I don’t know what the number of students is in private schools, but let’s say there are another 10,000.

Could the existing telecommunications infrastructure in Lafayette support the delivery of remote instruction for the several weeks of sustained school closures a bird flu pandemic might require?

If that was all that was needed, one might argue that the network might be able to do it.

OK, so how will business be conducted? Face-to-face? During quarantine?

Other news stories have pointed to business leaders across the country considering telework responses to a bird flu outbreak.

Could all that education and business traffic be carried simultaneously over existing telecom infrastructure?

All the real world evidence we’ve seen in recent years about surges in traffic demand indicates that the existing infrastructure is not up to the challenge.

Communities will pay a dear price for this inadequacy.

But, Lafayette need not be left unarmed. The LUS fiber system offers Lafayette a clear path for a unique response through a network infrastructure second to none. Fiber to every home and business will deliver enough bandwidth for Lafayette businesses and educational institutions to continue to function in ways that will just not be possible in other communities.

This is what we voted for last July when we voted to approve the LUS fiber project.

This asset — this secret weapon — is just one thing BellSouth is trying to deny our community when they sue to kill the LUS plan.