Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ebola Terror: The New Normal for American Schools

The Ebola virus was first identified when Curmie was still in college, which wasn’t exactly last week. But it didn’t become an issue in this country—despite the severe outbreak of the disease in West Africa over the past several months, claiming nearly 5000 lives—until an American doctor working in Liberia for the Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse contracted the illness. Then the press and politicians roused from their slumbers and started bellowing about the terrors of this vile threat. People are saying (notice how Curmie stole the Fox News trope for “I’m about to make shit up”?) that even Chicken Little took to Twitter to tell these paranoid nutjobs to chill the fuck out.

The Ebola virus gets its name from a river in what is now the Congo, where the first cases were identified nearly 40 years ago. Whereas Curmie resists the urge to launch into an exegesis on postcolonial theory, he does note that it doesn’t take an advanced degree in the humanities or social sciences to understand that what is being hyped by the unscrupulous of our species draws a lot on exoticizing Africa and not a little from good old-fashioned racism. Not that this administration has ever been subjected to that, right?

Easily forgotten words, especially among school officials.
It is not my intention to minimize the potential destructiveness of this highly infectious and potentially fatal disease. Neither the Obama administration nor the CDC in particular have covered themselves in glory in their response to the outbreak. Precautions are appropriate. Isolating those showing symptoms is mandatory. Increased scrutiny of those who might legitimately have encountered the disease makes sense. But the World Health Organization, whom Curmie trusts on such matters a little more than he does Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck, points out a couple of very important facts:
Infection occurs from direct contact through broken skin or mucous membranes with the blood, or other bodily fluids or secretions (stool, urine, saliva, semen) of infected people. Infection can also occur if broken skin or mucous membranes of a healthy person come into contact with environments that have become contaminated with an Ebola patient’s infectious fluids such as soiled clothing, bed linen, or used needles….
patients become contagious once they begin to show symptoms. They are not contagious during the incubation period.
The New York Times clarifies that a cough could spread the disease, but only if saliva is transmitted. Assuming the person next to you on the plane is in the early stages of exhibiting symptoms and literally coughs in your face with… you know… fluids, you could conceivably be at risk, but not if that cough goes into a Kleenex or even a shirtsleeve that never touches you. The disease is not airborne. It isn’t. I don’t care what some idiot on Fox News says. (Insert the usual apologies for the redundancy of “idiot on Fox News” here.)

And the medical community seems pretty much unanimous in declaring the travel bans are more likely to do harm (by restricting aid workers’ access to troubled areas) than good (a simple temperature check eliminates virtually all possibility of in-flight transmission)… and that’s not even counting the considerable damage an all-out travel ban would do to the world economy and especially to the economies of the afflicted areas.

More to the point, whereas the disease may have reached epidemic proportions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, both Nigeria and Senegal have now been declared Ebola-free. Of course, as comedian Andy Borowitz points out, “they had an advantage over us because they have no cable news networks.” Moreover, no one—repeat, no one—other than health care workers caring for existing sufferers has first contracted the disease on this side of the Atlantic. Not family members, not friends, and certainly not people who happened to have used the same public restroom or taken the same bus. Tina DuPuy’s tweet—“So far every case of Ebola in this country got it by helping people. So relax, Republicans, you're in the clear.”—has enough truth in it to make it funny, even if it’s a little too snarky, even by Curmie’s standards. N.B., Curmie is not endorsing the blanket condemnation of Republicans, many of whom are generous and altogether wonderful people with whom Curmie disagrees on matters of politics. (Damned few of those good GOP-sters are elected officials or media talking heads, however.)

But while the media—led by Fox News, but by no means restricted to them—can be expected to blare the trumpets of ignorance, fear-mongering and disinformation if it will get them ratings (and probably even if it won’t), while elected officials and candidates seek political positioning rather than truth, at least we have the educational system to keep us from spiraling into some admixture of existential despair and screwball comedy, right? Um… no.

Curmie kind of… kind of gets it that schools would rather err on the side of caution. He knows about discretion being the better part of valor. But he also knows that that expression comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, that it is uttered by the cowardly Falstaff, and that we in the audience are intended to laugh at Falstaff, not to mistake his craven rationalization for wisdom.

But at least the reactions of schools in Solon, Ohio and Belton, Texas, while outrageous over-reactions, nonetheless exist in the same area code as sanity. Both districts were reacting to the fact that someone from their system had been on the same flight as Amber Vinson, the nurse who undoubtedly contracted the virus from caring for the now-deceased Thomas Eric Duncan, and whom the CDC allowed to take a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas despite her warning them that she was running a slight fever. (She was diagnosed with Ebola the next day.) An unnamed staffer from the Ohio school and two students from the Texas district were on Vinson’s flight. Was it an over-reaction to actually close the schools altogether? Of course. Was it in the same league as some of the other inanity out there? Not even close.

Unfortunately, Curmie is only scratching the surface of astoundingly boneheaded and paranoid decisions.

Let’s see… there’s the school in New Jersey that delayed the matriculation of two Rwandan students, despite the fact that they were healthy and hadn’t been within, oh, an entire freaking continent of an Ebola outbreak.

Here’s where I turn it over to Steven Rosenfeld of AlterNet:
Howard Yocum Elementary School, in Maple Shade, New Jersey, is across the river from Philadelphia. It’s 146 miles away from a hospital in Maryland, 782 miles from a hospital in Georgia, and 1,475 miles from a hospital in Texas, where Ebola patients are located. However, when parents and school officials heard that two students from the East African country of Rwanda were enrolled, they lost it—even though Rwanda, which has no Ebola cases, is 2,846 miles from the virus’ epicenter, Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa.
They were (unaccountably) forced to endure a 21-day waiting period, which was extended beyond that. A letter from the school nurse acknowledged that there was no reason whatsoever to keep the students out of classes, but she was going to do so, anyway, because BE AFRAID. Superintendent Beth Nocia admitted that “This area of Africa has been unaffected by the Ebola virus,” but nonetheless proclaimed that “despite the fact that the students are symptom-free and not from an affected area, the parents have elected to keep their children home past the 21-day waiting period.” A subsequent post on the school website changes the family’s “election” to a “gracious offer.” (Translation: we strong-armed them, and they gave in.) Nocia adds that:
If we step back as a community, it is clear that we are of one mind. We all care about our children. New parents were anxious to enroll their children in our public school system. A staff member was anxious to allay any possible fears even before they arose. Community members raised questions about potential health risks to all of our children.
Ah, isn’t that sweet!  What goes unspoken is that school officials screwed up big time, embarrassed both their district and their profession, and earned the contempt of anyone who actually cares about the kids, as opposed to caring about being perceived as caring about the kids. There was no reason to quarantine those students at all, much less extend the isolation longer than 21 days.

Then, of course, there was the Texas school that forbade an elementary school teacher from returning to the classroom for 21 days after she visited Tanzania. The nearest Ebola case to there? About 3000 miles, or roughly eleven times as far as Friendswood is from Dallas, where there actually was a case. This, of course, meant nothing to the obligatory cadre of profoundly ignorant parents. But a freaking school ought to know better, to educate, and to drag its tail out from between its quivering legs. Principal Barry Clifford is either a fool or a coward. Or, more likely, both.

He has plenty of company in educational administration, all over the country. Take, for example, the gaggle of idiots who run things in MSAD 58 in western Maine, specifically at Strong Elementary School. That’s where, out of “an abundance of caution,” a staff member was placed on a paid leave of absence after (gasp!) attending a conference in… Dallas. Apparently the entire 6.7 million people who actually live in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex should also be thus quarantined, right? 

Apaprently, we can trace this idiocy to a cretinous yahoo concerned parent named Matt Dexter. Stupid parents exist. Stupid principals and school boards shouldn’t. What they have done here, because they’re unwilling to tell the most irrational and misinformed parent in their district to STFU, is to legitimize stupid and hysterical responses to every future circumstance. Curmie is not amused.

The same idiocy appears in a South Carolina, where an assistant principal at Chestnut Grove Middle School will have to sit out for that magical three week period after returning from a missionary trip to South Africa, which is—you’re spotting a trend here, aren’t you, Gentle Reader?—about 3000 miles from the nearest Ebola outbreak. Sonya Cox is the designated moron spokesperson for the Stokes County School Board. You can predict what she’s going to say: “We just feel like we have to err on the side of caution.” No, you’re erring on the side of ignorance and irrationality. With all due respect, maybe those ought not to be the cardinal virtues of a school system.

This idea that extreme “better safe than sorry” reasoning does more to stoke paranoia than to relieve it is borne out by the case of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, which apparently really does exist outside Beth Henley plays. After a false rumor spread that Lee Wannik, the principal of Hazlehurst Middle School, had recently visited Nigeria, “swarms of parents” removed their kids from the school. First off, as noted above, Nigeria has now been declared Ebola-free. Secondly, Wannik was actually in Zambia, some 2000 miles away. But, lest he be a “distraction,” Wannik took a leave and sought medical attention although he was (of course) asymptomatic. The result, according the Daily Mail, was that “fears [were] escalated further.” Of course they were, you moron! Seriously, where do they find these people, and why are they always principals?

To be fair, not everyone in educational administration is a gutless moron. Witness, for example, Kent Holbrook, the superintendent in Inola, Oklahoma. When 18 students didn’t show up at school last Monday because of Ebola rumors concerning three students who had just returned from a mission trip to Ethiopia (which, like Zambia, South Africa, and Tanzania, is nowhere near the Ebola epicenter), Holbrook responded with facts. Here’s the report from KOTV in Tulsa:
“Our students were not exposed to Ebola. There was no person that was sick on the trip. There was no person sick Ethiopia while they were there. There was no person on the plane,” Holbrook said.

Ethiopia isn't anywhere near the countries in Western Africa where people have contracted the deadly virus.

Holbrook said the three students were screened by officials when they re-entered the United States and were cleared to come to school.

“They just said, ‘where've you been?’ They told them, ‘Africa.’ ‘What part?’ They say said, ‘Ethiopia’ and said, ‘you’re clear, there’s never been a case out of there,’” said Holbrook.
See how easy that is? If only the average principal, superintendent, or school board member could see it. But having more brains than a partially decayed corncob or more backbone than overcooked vermicelli seems to be a prohibitively high standard. Alas.

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