A teacher at Strong Elementary School who recently visited Dallas is on a 21-day leave after parents said they are concerned about the potential spread of Ebola.

The teacher, whose name was not made public, attended a seminar held by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium that is still going on 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,” according to a statement from School Administrative District 58, which was 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.”

The school didn’t say when the teacher returned from Dallas, a city of 1.2 million people, but the superintendent implied she went last weekend, telling the Portland Press Herald she was “packing her bags” to go last weekend.

The decision to put the teacher on leave was made by the SAD 58 school board Thursday night, after parents and community members said they were frustrated that they were not notified that the teacher was going to Dallas, where the nation’s first uncontrolled case of the disease was reported.

Matt Dexter of Strong, who has a child in the teacher’s classroom, was the first to raise questions at the SAD 58 board meeting about whether the teacher should immediately come back to school.

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 come back and jump into the classroom on Monday seemed a little bit reckless,” Dexter said.

There are no reported cases of Ebola virus in Maine. Earlier this week, Maine Medical Center in Portland held a patient in isolation for two days while testing for Ebola, but the tests came back negative.

Dora Anne Mills, former head of the Maine state CDC and currently the 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 is not typical of airline travel or conference attendance, 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.

Dexter said he believes the government has failed to effectively educate people about how Ebola spreads, and at worst, has 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.”

SAD 58 School Superintendent Erica Brouillet told the Portland Press Herald Friday that 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.”

Brouillet refered questions from the Morning Sentinel to the statement posted on the school website. The statement says the district will be in contact with the Maine Center for Disease Control. Officials at the Maine CDC did not return a request for comment Friday, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta declined to comment.

School board member Lois Barker said Friday that the teacher was not on board an airplane on which a nurse subsequently diagnosed with Ebola was a passenger.

Several parents approached by a Morning Sentinel reporter Friday afternoon at the elementary school wouldn’t comment on the district’s decision, and school officials have declined requests for interviews about the decision.

The Morning Sentinel on Friday filed a Freedom of Information Act request with SAD 58 seeking the release of copies of all communications about the decision to put the teacher on leave.

Officials have closed some school districts in Texas, where three confirmed cases of Ebola are reported, and in Ohio, where a Texas nurse with the disease had flown, according to the Associated Press.

Although the death rate from Ebola is high, killing more than half of those who contract it, the disease is not easily spread, according to world health officials, because it is not airborne and the time it takes for one person to infect another is long, around 21 days. By comparison, flu can be spread to another person in as little as two days. The Ebola virus is transmitted only through contact with the blood or bodily fluids of those who are infected.

However, fears of the deadly virus are playing out in other communities around the country.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist for the Washington Post, who photographed Ebola victims in Liberia in September, was dis-invited from a photojournalism workshop at Syracuse University, even though he showed no signs of the disease for 21 days following his return to the U.S.

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, Miss., a crowd of parents pulled their middle school students from class on Friday after learning that the school’s principal had traveled recently to Zambia to attend a family funeral.

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.

Josh Kaplow, a clinical psychologist and public health professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a leading research medical schools, predicted similar incidents would occur as fear of Ebola spreads.

“That’s unfortunate, because it sends a very wrong signal to the broader public,” he said in an interview Friday. “It may have sent the right message to the parents, which is we hear you and we care, but it also sent a very dangerous message to the broader public, which is, if that school did it, why didn’t my school do it?”

At the hospital attached to UAB, emergency room physician and professor of emergency medicine David Piggott said the chances of contracting Ebola for most people are slim.

“Your chances of catching it, unless you’re in contact with somebody who has active disease, are zero,” he said. “You can’t get it out of the air, walking down the street, going to Walmart — you can’t get it Ebola like that. You have to be in close contact with touching or breathing in blood and body fluids from an infected patient.”

The CDC has advised that it take two to 21 days after exposure for Ebola symptoms to appear. Pigott said most people who are infected begin showing symptoms between eight and 10 days after exposure.

Jackie King, a spokeswoman for the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, said the Dallas conference is being held at the Hilton Anatole Hotel, and that participants are also staying there. King said the Strong Elementary teacher was one of 30 educators and administrators from Maine who attended or are attending the event. She declined to name any of the others, and declined to comment on SAD 58 putting the teacher on leave.

“I’m not aware of any other school that has taken such an action,” King said.

The hotel where the teacher stayed is about 10 miles away from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where the first uncontrolled case of the virus was treated. That patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, of Liberia, traveled to Dallas earlier this month after having contact with an infected person in his home country.

Health officials in Texas have come under fire for their handling of Duncan’s case. He was at first sent home after an early hospital visit, despite presenting symptoms of the disease and having a recent travel history to an area of intense infection. He later died at the hospital.

So far, two nurses who cared for Duncan 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.

 

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.