North Texas school districts continued their assault on the Ebola virus Friday as workers disinfected campuses, kept tabs on absences and took on the rumor mill.
In the two weeks since Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person in the United States to be diagnosed with Ebola — infecting two nurses caring for him before he died in Dallas on Oct. 8 — fears about the deadly virus have swept across the Metroplex and found their ways into our schools.
Some of the concerns are warranted; others are largely unfounded.
Attendance at Lake Pointe Elementary in the Eagle-Mountain Saginaw school district dropped significantly after parents were notified Wednesday night that a student had been placed in voluntary isolation. The student’s father, a Marine stationed at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, was on a Frontier Airlines flight with infected healthcare worker Amber Joy Vinson.
“It is the first time it really got real for our community, because it brought Ebola from Dallas right into our school community,” said Kristin Courtney, director of communications for the school district in northwest Tarrant County. “And our community needed some time to process the information.”
Absenteeism at Lake Pointe Elementary soared to 40 percent on Thursday, Courtney said, and 28 percent of students were absent again on Friday. Normally, Courtney said the district average is about 4 percent of students absent on any given day.
The school district did not close any campuses, but did cleanings Wednesday night and again Thursday morning, in addition to normal cleaning routines that use hospital-grade disinfectants, Courtney said.
“What I have heard is not so much people mistrusting us, but they are just not sure what to believe, so they needed time to work through the information and see how it would afffect them,” Courtney said.
Roland Kennedy, the father of a 7-year-old at the elementary school, said it was difficult to send his son to school, but that Lake Pointe’s communication with parents and cleaning efforts played a role in his decision.
“It reassured me that that it is OK, that he can go back to school,” Kennedy said. “And if he did come into contact with that student, the damage is done. I hope they do keep us informed, keep up with the phone calls and notices, because communication is key in this.”
Chelsea Salas, the mother of a first grader, said she and her husband made the decision to send their daughter to school.
“I just got real nervous. I couldn’t sleep. I kept worrying about if we should keep her home,” Salas said.
The district is developing a specialized education plan for the isolated student, Courtney said, using technology and interactive programs to help the student complete schoolwork and not fall behind.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on Friday urged North Texans not to overreact to the threat of Ebola, especially in the case of schoolchildren.
He said he was disappointed to learn of schools closing in various parts of Texas, where children and parents of children had possible contact with someone infected with Ebola.
He said some workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas told him that their children were being advised to stay away from day care facilities.
“These hometown heroes are in a difficult situation, dealing with their children being discriminated against in day care and school, and it’s not representative of North Texas and American values,” Jenkins said. “It makes little sense to discriminate against healthcare workers and their children, who are already in a scary situation waiting to see if they’re symptomatic.”
“Anyone doing it should apologize to those families and show their children love and laughter,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins defended those who have been on the front line in the fight against Ebola, and since Day 1 has been working to educate the public about the virus.
“Asymptomatic workers have zero chance of passing Ebola,” Jenkins said. “You can’t get Ebola from a contact. Only a person showing Ebola symptoms.”
In the Highland Park school district in Dallas, Superintendent Dawson Orr posted a message Friday on its website, explaining that all campuses will be cleaned over the weekend and that the custodial staff will step up cleaning during the school day.
The district also explains how its nursing staff has been trained to spot symptoms of Ebola, what what steps would be taken in the event of a case being suspected.
And in a pro-active approach, the district has a section on its website called “Help with rumor control,” in which it addresses such situations. It gives the example of questions they received about an elementary school student and his mother being on the same Frontier Airlines flight with Vinson.
Here is how the district responded: With the parent’s permission, I am sharing the following information: the student and his mother were never on the same aircraft as Vinson, either during or after Vinson’s flight to Dallas. Amber Vinson flew on a Frontier plane with the registration number N220FR from Cleveland to Dallas on Oct. 13. The HPISD student and his mother flew from Cleveland to Dallas on Oct. 14, but they did not fly on plane N220FR. More information is available from the Los Angeles Times and a flight tracking website.
The Fort Worth school district is also trying to dispel rumors, said Clint Bond, director of communication for the district, despite not having any reported exposure to Ebola.
“There have been rumors within the general community we have been made of aware of, not confined to just the school district, and we have done our best to squelch those,” he said in an email.
As precautions, Bond said, they have re-emphasized infectious disease protocols with school nurses and have talked with Dallas school district on their experiences and “lessons learned.”
The district has also put up information on the website. In a release called, “ Know the Plan,” the district outlines their questioning method for possible exposures.
Stepping up cleanings
Other Tarrant County area districts stepped up their cleaning efforts.
In Burleson, a parent of a student at Centennial High School was confirmed to have been on the flight with Vinson from Cleveland to Dallas, prompting school district offiicals to begin a “high-level” disinfecting of the school, beginning Friday night. The school was not closed.
In the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, where a secretary who works at the Transition Center was also on the Frontier flight, an outside consultant was called in to do a vapor ionization protocol. All schools in the district are cleaned nightly with a chemical that kills Ebola, MRSA, HINI, HIV, influenza and other viruses, said Judy Ramos, H-E-B’s director of communications.
The Grapevine-Colleyville school district deep-cleaned two campuses overnight and were open as usual Friday morning after notifying parents late Thursday that three of its students — two at Silver Lake Elementary and one at Grapevine Middle School — were on round-trip flights between Cleveland and Dallas with Vinson. The district also confirmed that one of its employees was on the same flight with Vinson last Friday, from D/FW to Cleveland.
Schools close for cleanings
Elsewhere in Texas, Kyle Debeer, communications director for the Belton school district south of Waco, said they plan to reopen three campuses on Monday, after being closed for cleaning Thursday and Friday.
Two of its students, at North Belton Middle and Sparta Elementary, traveled on the flight from Cleveland to Dallas with Vinson. The Belton Early Childhood School was also closed because some pre-kindergarteners transfer through the elementary at the beginning of the day, according to a district statement.
Going “above and beyond” recommendations from local, state and federal health officials, Debeer said, they decided to hire the same hazardous material cleaning company used in Dallas, Fort Worth-based The Cleaning Guys.
“I think parents are concerned, but we want parents to know that their students safety and health is our first priority,” Debeer said. “We think that taking the extra step of hiring this team to thoroughly disinfect the two campuses will reassure parents that it is safe for their kids to go to school on Monday.”
The Royse City district canceled school Friday to provide “sufficient time” for precautionary cleaning after a person acknowledged having cared for one of the recently diagnosed nurses. The healthcare worker lives in the same home as students who attend Davis Elementary School and Ruth Cherry Intermediate School, according to a district statement.
Managing editor Lee Williams contributed to this report, which includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.