Traditionally, this is a time of year many teachers and school administrators dread: cold and flu season. The sniffles and sneezes can wreak havoc on attendance, classroom instruction, and student achievement—and pose significant health threats to those exposed.
While preventing the spread of influenza should be a top health priority, there is another infectious disease that’s causing greater concern in the United States these days: Ebola. With news of the first-ever confirmed cases diagnosed in the United States, media reporting, speculation, and a real lack of understanding of the risks have fueled fears.
A few school districts canceled classes over concerns that staff and students may have had contact with persons exposed to Ebola. In Maine, a teacher was placed on up to 21 days of administrative leave because she had traveled to Dallas, where the first case of Ebola transmission in the United States occurred when, in fact, she’d had no exposure to the virus.
School leaders, of course, are not the only ones struggling with a response, as the quarantine of a returning Doctors Without Borders nurse in New Jersey proved all too well. So, perhaps some medical advice is in order. What should schools do to better educate themselves about Ebola and ensure a risk-based approach that will protect staff and students against this disease?
What are the facts?
Ebola is a severe, often deadly disease that can infect humans and nonhuman mammals such as monkeys and bats. The disease is spread by direct contact—such as through broken skin (a wound or rash) or the mouth, eyes, or nose—with the body fluids of a person who is sick with the disease and has symptoms. Objects with body fluids on them, such as needles, can also spread Ebola. Body fluids include blood, vomit, feces, saliva, breast milk, sweat, and semen. Ebola cannot be transmitted by air or water, or, in general, by food (in the United States), according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To date, only a handful of people have contracted the disease in the United States, while thousands of people in West Africa, tragically, have been infected and died as a result of the current outbreak.
According to the CDC, if you travel to an area where there is an Ebola outbreak or come into direct contact with someone who has the virus, you can protect yourself by:
• Washing your hands and avoiding contact with body fluids of an infected person;
• Not handling items that may have come into contact with an infected person’s body fluids, such as clothes, bedding, or medical equipment;
• Not touching the body of someone who has died from Ebola; and
• Avoiding contact with animals such as bats or monkeys or with raw or undercooked meat.
The good news is that the risk of catching Ebola in the United States is very low because, unlike many countries in Africa, our nation has a strong public-health network and one of the world’s most advanced health-care systems. This network works to detect dangerous diseases and helps prevent them from spreading. While school systems should have contingency plans for worst-case scenarios, there are many other infectious diseases that pose more common threats to the health of our students, teachers, and administrators.
The Ebola outbreak ... presents an opportunity to re-evaluate [school health] policies.”
What are the common infectious risks?
Again, according to the CDC, infectious diseases such as influenza, measles, and mumps are responsible for millions of school days lost each year for K-12 public school students in the United States. Each year, about 38 million school days are lost because of flu, and 22 million school days are lost because of colds alone.
What’s more, the CDC reports that an average of 20,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized each year because of flu-related complications, and more young children are hospitalized because of the flu than any other vaccine-preventable disease.
Ebola may be making headlines right now, but it is clear that schools should focus on preventing the infectious diseases that are already a risk to staff and students. By their nature, schools are susceptible to transmitting infections because the people inside them are constantly in close contact with one another and regularly share supplies and equipment. That is why schools must have policies in place ahead of time to deal with potential outbreaks.
How can we protect our schools?
There are several ways school systems can keep their communities healthy and thriving. For starters, school leaders can work with public-health experts and local health departments to develop and vet plans that fit their schools and communities. The cdc offers a wealth of information, resources, and tools to use in implementing healthy policies. Recommendations for ways schools can prevent infectious diseases include:
• Encouraging students and staff to stay home and visit a physician if sick;
• Promoting good hand hygiene to students and stocking restrooms with soap and paper towels;
• Regularly cleaning and disinfecting classrooms;
• Sharing messages about infectious-disease-prevention tactics in daily announcements;
• Training staff members to handle food, as well as body fluids and excretions, in a safe manner; and
• Encouraging students and staff to get annual flu shots.
Parents play a significant role as well and can help schools maintain a healthy environment. In addition to reinforcing the behaviors listed above, parents should make sure their children always get plenty of exercise, sleep, and healthy food.
For these policies to be effective, frequent clear communication—with parents, students, teachers, administrators, school nurses, and custodial workers—is key.
Federal organizations like the CDC (www.cdc.gov); public-health groups like the American Public Health Association (www.apha.org), which I lead; and local health departments are great resources. School administrators can build relationships with these groups to get an understanding of the local infectious-disease situation and to keep updated if an outbreak should occur.
School employees should be educated in policies and trained in what to do if someone gets sick. Parents should be informed of school policy so that they can reinforce healthy behaviors with their children.
Encouraging students, parents, and school staff members to take everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs can make a crucial difference in the health of our nation’s students. The Ebola outbreak does not mean we should close schools and cancel classes, but it presents an opportunity to re-evaluate our policies for dealing with infectious disease.
Now is the time to make a plan to keep schools safe and start talking to one another about how we can execute it. Planning ahead, instead of scrambling in a time of crisis, is education’s best chance for preventing and dealing with an outbreak of any kind.
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Lessons From Ebola: How Schools Can Stay Healthy