Even the federal government is getting caught in the wrangle over when and how - if at all - schoolchildren ought to be taught about nuclear war. Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tested a new curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade called ''Emergency Management Instruction'' in 22 states. The materials were distributed in four versions for different age groups, and included information about a variety of emergencies such as earthquakes.
Critics have ridiculed the materials for treating nuclear war as if it were a ''manageable'' disaster. The workbook for the youngest age group, for instance, includes a picture of a mushroom cloud alongside pictures of lightening hitting a tree, a house burning, and a hurricane. Young children are also encouraged to visit nearby fallout shelters and practice getting to them quickly.
''It makes going into a fallout shelter sound like a camping trip,'' says Rick Collett of the East Bay (San Francisco) chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility.
FEMA had planned to distribute the curriculum next fall. But one official says the agency is analyzing results of the pilot test and may decide not to release the materials.
Educators for Social Responsiblity, meanwhile, is organizing opposition to the curriculum. So far, five San Francisco Bay Area school districts have rejected it.
''This isn't something new that's suddenly been sprung on the public,'' says FEMA education specialist Jim Bunton. In the mid-'70s, for instance, the federal government produced a booklet for junior high students on nuclear war, called ''Your Chance to Live.'' Mr. Bunton says that was ''a very popular program.''