Last week, a Superior Court Judge in Durham ruled that a teenager who had been barred from school for fear that he had Ebola could return to classes. The private school, Mount Zion Christian Academy, requested that he stay home from school for 21 days after learning that his father had recently traveled to Nigeria (a nation declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization). Neither the student nor his father had come into contact with anyone suspected of having Ebola nor did they show any signs or symptoms of the disease. So why was he prevented from studying?
Similarly, in October, a Stokes County middle school assistant principal was not allowed to return to her job for 21 days after returning from a mission trip to South Africa. The Stokes County School Board claimed that they had to “err on the side of caution.”
So, are our local school officials just acting in the best interest of our children?
No. Fear and misinformation have plagued the outbreak since the first Ebola patient was diagnosed in the U.S. in late September, and our educators are not immune to this “fear-bola.” Instead of teaching our children facts and compassion about the current events, they ban an assistant principal from performing her job because she was doing good in an African country 3,000 miles from the nearest Ebola case. They discriminate against a child whose father traveled to another part of Africa (a continent made up of over 50 distinct countries) without any scientific or medical reason. What message does this send to our youth and their families?
A recent Gallup poll reports that Americans rank Ebola as the No. 3 top health care concern. This ranks it above obesity, cancer, heart disease, the flu and mental illness. Although being prepared is important, let’s put things in perspective for North Carolina:
• Projected number of deaths from all cancers in the state in 2014: over 20,100
• Projected number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia: over 1,600
• Projected number of deaths from Ebola in North Carolina in 2014: 0
Our educators and school officials need to be examples of truth and tolerance instead of fear and hysteria. In addition to the recent Ebola Screening Protocol put into place by the Wake County Public School System that aims to assess whether a returning or new student might have been in contact with Ebola, school officials should add an education program for teachers and students based on facts.
This additional component should include information from reputable sources on where the current outbreak is located (including maps – those educating our children should know that South Africa is 3,000 miles from the Ebola-affected West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia) and on how Ebola is spread (when broken skin or mucous membranes come into contact with the body fluids of an infected person, not through air, water or food).
Most importantly, teachers and parents should be educating our children about compassion and empathy. Ebola is a horrific disease that has decimated families and entire communities throughout Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Instead of focusing on how to chastise and isolate those we perceive to be a threat (real or not), we should base our conversations, policies and actions on the facts.
The vast majority of teachers I know are passionate, skilled educators who are deeply concerned about the education of North Carolina’s youth. But it takes only one principal or one school board member to fall victim to a misinformed parent or community member for fear to take over.
It’s time for the Wake County public schools and other North Carolina school systems (public and private) to adopt a more inclusive and compassionate Ebola education program for their teachers and students to prevent hysteria and discrimination and to create the best learning environments possible for all of our children.
Dirk Davis of Chapel Hill is a public health professional who has worked abroad, primarily in Central America. He’s currently getting his master’s in public health at UNC-CH.