As I begin this blog post, I have to confess that I love watching The Walking Dead. My appreciation for the show begins with the inclusion of zombies (I am into zombies…), but this appreciation in enhanced because in virtually every episode I find myself wrestling with ethical issues, many of which could have legal implications, and that is what I find the most compelling aspect of The Walking Dead. Although I do not envision a situation where the dead will actually begin walking down my street – if that were to happen I would want to link up with Daryl Dixon – a more plausible scenario recently presented itself in the American psyche when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian visiting family members in Texas, was diagnosed and eventually died from the Ebola virus. Today it was reported that a US soldier sent to assist with the Ebola crisis in western Africa has died.
As the mere threat of an Ebola outbreak was reported in all news outlets, I found the reaction of certain school officials curious. Consider the following examples:
- · In October, the same month that Duncan died, an elementary school in Connecticut requested that a student quarantine herself for 21 days after she returned from Nigeria, a country declared by the World Health Organization free of the Ebola virus. This student was in Nigeria to attend a family wedding. The family decided to sue the school district for the actions taken against this third grade student.
- · Two students from a Texas school district were on the same returning flight with the nurse, Amber Joy Vinson, who helped treat Mr. Duncan, then traveled to Ohio to visit family, and then was diagnosed with Ebola. When the superintendent of that school district learned of this fact, three schools in the school district were closed for a week so they could be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected (along with the buses serving these three schools). In addition, despite being deemed cleared by state health officials, the parents of these two students unilaterally decided to keep them home from school for the 21-day incubation period.
- · Finally, in Ohio a school district shut down two schools because two teachers flew on possibly the same plane, albeit a different and later flight, as Amber Joy Vinson.
Did school officials overreact in these three situations? Obviously, with hindsight, it is easy to answer that question in the affirmative. However, when school officials are in the throes of a potentially dangerous situation, such as the threat of a pandemic, what is the right course of action? Or, stated differently: Do school officials err on the side of caution at the risk of violating the rights of an individual or do they risk exposing more people to a potentially fatal disease by minimizing the dangers? And, ultimately, what are the personal, legal, and financial costs of either decision?
Another question related to the threat of a pandemic is when do school officials err on the side of caution? For example, during the height of the Ebola scare I informed my family that if there was a reported case of the disease in Colorado that we would cease interacting with others to ensure that we were not exposed to the disease. On a macro-scale, when do school officials deem the threat to be too great to keep schools open? And, if left to their own judgment, will some school officials wait too long before closing schools?
I am not certain if there are clear answers to the questions I pose here. One of the reasons for this statement is that each situation has its own particulars and a general policy or guideline may not appropriately apply to all situations. However, I also feel the Ebola scare should serve as a “wake-up call” to educators across the nation to think through all of the nuances associated with the threat of a pandemic before such a situation actually arises. And, where possible, hire Rick Grimes to be the school resource officer.