Are School Districts Ready for the Looming Ebola Challenge?

The following description of events is true.  Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

A Rude Awakening

On the morning of Friday, October 17, 2014, I awoke to check my Facebook and found a story about an Ebola threat in the Belton Independent School District, not too far from where my family lives in Texas.  What plan, I wondered, is in place for dealing with a local Ebola threat, in my school district?  It was time, I decided, to find out.  But I found the response I received woefully inadequate.  Am I overreacting, or does the reply I received mean my district is behind the eight ball on this?  I look forward to hearing from readers in the response section at the end of this column.

A Concerned Teacher Emails the Deputy Superintendent

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I sent this email on Monday, October, 20, 2014:

Dear Deputy Superintendent,

Friday morning, before coming to school, I checked my social network to find out what was going on with my family back in Texas.  My sister had posted the following story about an Ebola scare in a local school district there:  There was another link at the end of the story:

This story and the additional link, coupled with the fact that there is a female student under observation at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, means to me that it is time to get ahead of the curve on Ebola and make a response plan.

[In the body of this letter, I pose some questions which are restated in the district response-letter, so I omit them for now.]

There are many precautions and protocols to consider putting in place.  Thank you for your time.


Dr. Paul Dowling, Teacher

A Less-Than-Helpful Response

Ebola USAThe reply from the school district came two days later, on Wednesday, October 22, 2014.  With regard to some of my thoughts on the district response, I have inserted some comments in brackets [like these]:  I believe that any email from just about any teacher working in any school district would probably yield a similar response, at this time.  Here is the letter:

Dear Dr. Dowling,

Thank you for your concerns about Ebola and what schools should do in response.  First, our Health Services team is working to address public concerns about the virus, and dispel any misinformation that is coming from the media or the general community.  I am told that the most important facts are as follows:

There are no cases of Ebola in the state or in our locale.

[But the question was about how to outmaneuver problems, once Ebola arrives.]

The risk of anyone in the US contracting Ebola is currently extremely low.

[But what if?]

Ebola spreads through contact with body fluids of a symptomatic person suffering from Ebola.  It is not transmitted through casual contact or through the air.

[But demonstration of fatal aerosol transmission of this virus in monkeys reinforces the importance of taking appropriate precautions with regard to potential aerosol transmission to humans.  Read all about it here:]

Travelers from West Africa that are screened and monitored and, if they are not showing symptoms, can proceed with normal activities, like work and school.

[Many virologists believe that some carriers can become contagious before they show symptoms.]

I believe there are some direct answers to your questions that have come from guidance of the CDC.

[CDC seems be repeating the party line, without addressing concerns about the virus going airborne or being contagious earlier than thought.]

ebola2Q: “What are we to do, when a student announces a text message from her mom saying her dad has been exposed to Ebola—or, God forbid, has Ebola—and it is third period?  How many students have come in contact with that student already?  Teachers and administrators?  Aides, janitorial, and cafeteria staff?”

A: First, there are no cases of Ebola, other than three known cases, in the US.  The CDC has established a significant screening and monitoring system that does not let any traveler from three outbreak countries (Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone) into the US without passing thorough a CDC checkpoint for registration and assessment.  It is virtually impossible at this time for a student to be exposed to an Ebola case without the public health department knowing.  Furthermore, since the student in this scenario is not showing any signs or symptoms, there is little or no risk of Ebola transmission to others.

[If it were “virtually impossible” for a student to be exposed, how did students in Texas get exposed?  A California college student in San Diego was on the same flight; what about her?]

Q: “How does the school react?  And what if there are siblings at other district schools?”

A:  School should use existing policy and procedure to guide action.  If the student states that a relative has been exposed to Ebola, then the relative should seek medical care.  Without contact with a confirmed case, the student should be treated normally.  If ill, the student should be assessed and sent home.

[Existing policy would not involve calling authorities to evaluate whether or not to quarantine a student at home—or the student’s family.]

Q: “Does the school dismiss?  Are health officials called in to record the names of all students leaving and their addresses?”

A: There is no planned dismissal protocol for Ebola; it is a disease that warrants individual assessment, monitoring, and quarantine.  The Public Health Department will lead all of these activities.

[But do we stop the schedule of classes from progressing, so students do not come in contact with anyone new?  This would limit the number of kids being put at risk, if it turns out later that the student is infected.]

Q: “Do teachers have emergency nursing masks (called isolation face-masks, for small particles and airborne sneeze droplets)?”

A: Since Ebola is not spread through air, a mask will not prevent infection.

[Ebola can mutate, and the more people we let into the country through our airports and open borders, the more potential exists for the virus to spread and mutate.]

Q: “Is there a special deal with the state, in case absenteeism goes up out of sheer panic among members of the public?”

A: This is the reason for better education about Ebola with the general public.  The risk is so low for any outbreak in our schools, the only reason we would anticipate increased absenteeism is because members of the public were acting out of fear or misinformation.

[And it does not appear that this letter is evidence of “better education about Ebola” on behalf of the district, since it only parrots the limited scope of what the CDC offers up on a daily basis.]

Thank you for the questions.  We anticipate additional guidance for school response to Ebola to be forthcoming from the Department of Public Health.


Dr. N. D. Nile, Health Services

[I wish to say, at this point, that Dr. Nile’s response, although unhelpful in many ways, is probably the full extent of what he is allowed to say or offer as help or assurance.  The real problem for school districts at this point is not a lack of ability to come up with a plan; it is the disturbing lack of leadership and correct information dissemination.  The well-intentioned person who got back to me is, in many ways, a victim of constraints being placed upon the district from national, state, and local government.]

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