A teacher at Strong Elementary School was placed on a 21-day paid leave of absence after parents told the school board they were concerned that she might have been exposed to Ebola during a trip to Dallas for an educational conference.
The teacher, who was not named, attended a seminar held by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium that is still meeting in Dallas.
“At this time, we have no information to suggest that this staff member has been in contact with anyone who has been exposed to Ebola,” the district wrote in a statement published on its website. “However, the district and the staff member understand the parents’ concerns. Therefore, after several discussions with the staff member, out of an abundance of caution, this staff member has been placed on a paid leave of absence for up to 21 days.”
It takes two to 21 days for someone who has been infected with Ebola to show symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
The decision to place the teacher on leave was made by the MSAD 58 school board Thursday evening, after parents and community members expressed frustration that they were not notified that the teacher would be traveling to Dallas, where the nation’s first Ebola case was diagnosed.
There are no reported cases of the deadly disease in Maine. Earlier this week, Maine Medical Center in Portland held a patient in isolation for two days while testing for the virus. The tests came back negative.
Dora Anne Mills, former head of the Maine CDC and the current vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England, said it was highly unlikely the teacher was in any danger. The type of close contact with bodily fluids required to contract the disease does not typically occur while flying on an airliner or attending a conference, she said.
“Right now if I had a meeting in Dallas that I needed to take my children to, I would not hesitate,” Mills said.
Dallas officials have said there are about 135 people who are being monitored to some degree in the city of 1.25 million.
Although the death rate from Ebola is high – it kills over half of those who become infected – it is not an airborne disease and is transmitted only through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is infected.
Even so, fears of the deadly virus are playing out in schools and communities around the country.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist for the Washington Post, who photographed Ebola victims in Liberia in September, was disinvited from a photojournalism workshop at Syracuse University even though he showed no signs of the disease for 21 days after his return to the United States. On Thursday, a woman flying on an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Chicago vomited in the airplane, and was subsequently locked in a bathroom by flight staff. In Hazelhurst, Mississippi, a crowd of parents pulled their middle school students from class Friday after learning that the school’s principal recently had traveled to attend a family funeral in Zambia, which is in southern Africa and about 3,000 miles from the outbreak in West Africa.
Freeport Middle School last week temporarily isolated a student after she incorrectly told a classmate that her father was being tested for Ebola. The school sent a letter to parents to quell the rumors and investigated the report, which turned out to be false.
At the MSAD 58 board meeting Thursday, Superintendent Erica Sands Brouillet said there was no attempt to hide the teacher’s travel, which was scheduled in July.
“Last weekend she was packing her bags, (and) it did not seem like a risk that was a problem at that time,” Brouillet said. “She never kept it a secret. Her kids in her classroom knew from the very beginning. But there was no intent to keep that a secret at all.”
Jackie King, a spokeswoman for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, said the Dallas conference is being held at the Hilton Anatole Hotel, where participants also are staying. King said the Strong Elementary teacher was one of 30 educators and administrators from Maine who attended or still are at the event. She declined to name any of the others, and declined to comment on MSAD 58 putting the teacher on leave.
“I’m not aware of any other school that has taken such an action,” King said.
Strong Elementary’s statement said the district would be in contact with the Maine Center for Disease Control. On Friday, the Maine CDC said that to date, the only people in the United States who have contracted the disease have had direct contact with someone who was ill and symptomatic. Maine CDC officials did not respond to questions about whether they were informed, either before or after the school board decided to place one of its teachers on leave.
That explanation, however, is not reassuring to Matt Dexter of Strong, who has a child in the teacher’s classroom. Dexter was the first to raise questions at the board meeting about whether the teacher should come back to school immediately.
On Friday, he reiterated his concerns, saying the school district has a pattern of making decisions without informing parents or the community.
“What the parents were saying last night is that, you sent (this teacher) to a potentially harmful area for exposure, and then to come back and jump into the classroom on Monday seemed a little bit reckless,” Dexter said.
Despite assurances from health officials about the low chance of contracting Ebola – and the fact that no one in Maine has contracted the disease – Dexter believes the government has failed to effectively educate people about how Ebola spreads, and worse, downplayed risk factors.
“I’m really tired of people telling everyone, on the news, starting at the national level, ‘zero risk, low risk,'” he said. “The bottom line is that there is risk. Are we more capable of handling this than Africa? Sure, but why walk around blind and jam people into hot spots we can’t control? It all comes down to personal responsibility.”
The hotel where the teacher stayed is about 10 miles from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where the first case of the virus was diagnosed. That patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, of Liberia, traveled to Dallas this month after having contact with an infected person in his home country.
So far, two nurses who cared for Duncan before he died have been diagnosed with the disease and are being treated. This week, national news outlets reported that one of the nurses traveled from Dallas to Cleveland on a Frontier Airlines flight. Parents at the school board meeting expressed fear that the teacher could have come into contact with someone who came into contact with one of the nurses.
MSAD 58 school board member Lois Barker said the Strong teacher was not on an airliner on which the nurse was a passenger.
About 363,000 passengers arrived on international flights into Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in August, the latest month for which statistics are available. About 5 million domestic travelers passed through the airport in the same month.