Suggestions to Help Minimize Teaching Disruptions Due to H1N1 Flu

Date: September 24, 2009


Dear Colleagues:

The start of the fall term has coincided with new stories in the media about the H1N1 pandemic, or swine flu as it is commonly called. So far, the new virus does not appear to be more severe than other seasonal strains of flu. However, the attention it has received and the likelihood that some members of the University will become ill with it in the coming months have understandably renewed questions about its potential impact on our programming.

You have already received several communications about the H1N1 flu. In addition, the University has created a preparedness web site, accessible through the Columbia home page, with extensive information and tips on dealing with the flu. These can provide you with health information, but they may not address the special concerns you may have as faculty for the education of your students. We have, therefore, prepared the following questions and answers to offer guidance on how to minimize the disruption that the flu might cause in your courses.

Should I stop teaching if I come down with the flu?

If you develop flu-like symptoms, the CDC recommends that you stay home until you have been free of fever, without the assistance of fever-reducing medication such as Tylenol or Motrin, for at least 24 hours. In most cases, this will mean an absence of three to five days.

What should I do if students come to my class with flu symptoms?

If any of your students show symptoms, you should ask them not to attend your classes and to seek help from the Health Services by calling 854-2284 (Morningside) or 305-3400 (CUMC). Assistance is available at those numbers at all times of the day or night, even when the Health Services are closed. Additionally, we recommend that you make arrangements that will allow them to keep up with their course work while they are out, to the extent their health permits.

Do I need to change my policies on class attendance and late assignments if students become ill with the virus?

If the flu becomes more widespread or more severe, it may be necessary to reconsider your expectations. At present, however, there is no need to have separate policies for students with the flu. You should show them the same consideration you would give to any student who cannot attend your classes due to illness. You should, however, keep in mind that the Health Services will not be able to provide students with notes confirming that they have the flu due to the number of cases it is expecting to handle.

Should I meet with students who may have the flu during my office hours?

You should communicate with students who have flu-like symptoms by e-mail and phone rather than meeting with them in person.

Should I take special precautions in reading the written work of students with the flu?

You should encourage ill students to submit their assignments electronically. Although health experts see no specific risk associated with handling any papers they submit, by requesting an electronic version you can avoid unnecessary contact with them until they have recovered.

How can I communicate with my students if either they or I become ill with the flu?

The University has a wide array of electronic resources that will allow you to remain in contact with your students and permit them to continue to interact with each other.

Through CourseWorks, the University’s course management system, you can make materials available to students at any time and from anywhere, provide links to relevant electronic information resources, post assignments and conduct online tests. CourseWorks also allows you to communicate with your students by e-mail or through discussion boards where you and your students can engage in online conversations about your courses. For general information about CourseWorks, you can e-mail or call the CUIT Helpdesk at 854-1919. If you need assistance using the system, you should contact The Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) by phone at 854-9058 or by e-mail at Further information about CourseWorks may be found on the web at

In addition to CourseWorks, CCNMTL can help you with other technologies, such as wikis, blogs, and iTunes U Podcasts, that will help you maintain the continuity of your courses. CCNMTL offers workshops on these tools and can provide individual assistance to you in their use. Further information about CCNMTL is available on its web site at

If the H1N1 flu should require you to reconsider the type of materials you have your students read, you may want to explore the possible alternatives offered by the University Libraries’ large collection of electronic resources. These can be accessed through the Libraries’ online catalog, CLIO, and its web site, LWeb. In addition, the Libraries can work with you to scan printed materials, within the limits permitted by their copyrights, into its electronic reserves and can help you with a variety of other tools you can use to integrate its electronic resources into your courses.

Will the University cancel classes as a result of the H1N1 flu?

If the pandemic remains at its current level of severity, the University will continue to hold classes and other scheduled events. If it should become more widespread or cause more severe illness, it may be necessary to cut back or cancel activities that bring groups of people into close contact. In an extreme case, this could include classes, but any decision to suspend the instructional work of the University will only be made after careful consideration, and only by the President and me, in consultation with the deans and the faculty.

Suggestions to help minimize teaching disruptions due to H1N1 flu

What can I do now to be prepared for the possibility that the pandemic might disrupt my classes?

It is important to plan ahead for the possibility that your classes will be affected by the H1N1 flu. We encourage you to take the following steps at this time:

• make sure you have access to e-mail, the Internet, and critical course materials and files from home;

• refer to the Columbia E-mail and Computing web page for any notices regarding system availability, and e-mail or call 854-1919 if you have any systems questions;

• establish a site in CourseWorks for each of your classes, if you have not done so already;

• familiarize yourself with the Class E-mail and other features in CourseWorks that will permit you to communicate with your students electronically if it becomes necessary;

• be prepared to submit grades online through the University’s Online Grading system;

• evaluate whether the University’s electronic resources, described above, will be a useful means of teaching at a distance and take advantage of the opportunities available to learn about them, such as workshops, online materials and individual consultations; and

• develop strategies, such as recording lectures for podcasts, for how you will manage if you cannot come to your classes due to the flu, if individual students become ill or if the number of absent students becomes too large to continue to hold meaningful classes.

Where can I find additional information on the H1N1 virus and the University’s plans for responding to it?

You can find additional information on the H1N1 flu on the University preparedness web site at The web site is updated regularly to include the most current information on the virus. It provides useful descriptions of the symptoms someone will experience if they have the flu, how you can avoid it, how you can help to reduce its spread and what you should do if you become ill.  It also includes helpful links to other web sites on H1N1, such as those of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 

While we should not overreact to the H1N1 flu, it is prudent to prepare for the possibility that some of you or some of your students will become ill in the coming months.  The best time to prepare is now, before it is necessary to act.  We, therefore, encourage you to inform yourself about the H1N1 flu by consulting the University’s preparedness web site, evaluate the alternatives for remaining in contact with your students at this time, and be ready to use those resources that make sense for your courses if the need should arise.


Claude M. Steele