Educators are no strangers to illness in schools. Influenza. Stomach bugs. Whooping cough. Veteran leaders grappled with MRSA and SARS a few years ago. This fall, school officials were learning about Enterovirus D68 and its potential threat to young patients as some cases were confirmed in Kentucky.
Ebola is different.
Since July, a handful of Americans have been confirmed with the Ebola virus after returning from Africa — where one area (read: one area) in the west of the continent has an outbreak that has taken thousands of lives. While one American did die after returning from west Africa, by the second week in November, medical officials stated that the last American known to have tested positive for Ebola was risk-free.
Tucked in the midst of that time frame, two Kentucky schools had an “Ebola scare.” There were similarities in both instances. But the differences offer lessons for school leaders – differences between being ready for a medical issue versus being prepared to talk about it with staff, parents and the public.
A tale of two decisions
In mid-October, Barren County Schools aide Rosana Padgett got home from a family and mission trip to east Africa. Almost immediately, Superintendent Bo Matthews and Assistant Superintendent Mark Wallace heard a “groundswell of concern” about Padgett possibly having been exposed to Ebola. The district asked Padgett to take a paid leave of 21 days (the incubation period). She agreed and returned to work after that time. The district issued a brief press release explaining the matter and the compromise.
Matthews told me, “There were no medical concerns about Mrs. Padgett being at work. (But) due to the sensitivity of the public regarding Ebola, we offered the paid leave and she accepted.” Wallace added, “We were very – very – considered in what we did and in what we said.”
Things went differently for Louisville’s St. Margaret Mary Catholic School. After teacher Susan Sherman returned from an east Africa mission, “strong parent concerns” led the school to – depending on who is talking – ask that she take a “precautionary leave” or tell her to stay home for the quarantine period. Sherman resigned. In media-rich Louisville, the story took off, almost simultaneously with second guessing in national media about Ebola-scare school decisions in several other states.
Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz later told reporters, “It was a prudent judgment that was made at a time of great confusion. (But) in retrospect, I think it was not the right judgment.”
A mid-November Google search about “Ebola” news produced 20.2 million stories in 38 seconds.
Tightening the search to “Ebola, school” found 9.9 million stories even quicker.
Taking it down to “Ebola, school, Kentucky” led to 85,800 stories, including reports by CBS News, the London Daily Mail, the International Business Times and the Nigerian Bulletin.
A final search on “Ebola, Kentucky, school, Barren” got three stories, two in Glasgow, one in nearby Bowling Green.
A case can be made that Barren County officials’ thoughtful reaction impacted where their story went…and where it ended.
The Last Word
Dr. Beth Griffith is a Clark County school board member and a pediatrician. I asked her about advice for school leaders trying to figure out what to say to the public if a similar issue crops up in their district.
“As a parent, a pediatrician and a frequent missionary to Tanzania (the other side of Africa), I definitely want to help folks understand about diseases and how they are spread. I would not want my patients to be afraid of me because I went to Africa.
“Parents are very vocal when they perceive someone could bring harm to their children. Students in Kentucky are far more likely to get influenza than Ebola, but Ebola gets all the press because there is a higher mortality rate. If we had Ebola in our community, we would likely inform parents in a proactive way, just as we have dealt with MRSA. Education, support and treatment, in addition to advice for prevention, would be at the top of our priorities.”
Education – clear, accurate communications – will be key to dealing with any potential threat to student safety — Ebola, flu or weapons, fact or rumor. Preparing to talk should be part of the planning process.
And that’s a message worth getting out.