Monday’s Star-Ledger reported hopeful news: The incidence of illnesses from Enerovirus-D68 is declining in New Jersey, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Writer Kathleen O’Brien noted that, nationwide, 825 cases of enterovirus-caused illness have been confirmed in 46 states and seven people have died. One victim was four-year-old Eli Waller, a preschool student in Hamilton, Mercer County, whose parents formed the First Day of School Foundation, for special needs children, in his memory. What an admirable and noble response to such a tragic and devastating event!
In New Jersey, a total of 17 cases of enterovirus have been confirmed while a number of others await test results, according to earlier newspaper accounts. Most involve children under the age of 12. So it’s understandable that parents and educators have been anxious: Young children and adolescents, who often lack immunity to the virus, have been the most vulnerable.
In my experience as a district superintendent, I found no other responsibility to be more important than making sure our schools provide safe and secure environments for the students in our care. While there is no cause for alarm, proactive steps are necessary. In the case of a contagion like the enterovirus, this requires disinfecting surfaces when necessary and ensuring that teachers, nurses and other staff members are able to recognize the signs of enterovirus-related illnesses. According to the CDC, symptoms can be cold- and flu-like, including runny noses, coughing, fever and body aches, or they can be much more serious, such as extreme difficulty breathing.
Also critical is communication with parents so that they are aware of methods of prevention, such as frequent hand-washing, instructing children to cover their mouths when sneezing and coughing, and keeping children home when they are ill. I’ve been happy to see that a number of school districts, including New Brunswick and Burlington City, have posted information for parents on their websites.
The New Jersey School Boards Association has a long-standing commitment to helping local boards of education address health threats to students through information and policy guidance.
Reaching into our archives, it’s worthy to note that, in 1985, NJSBA held the first statewide forum on AIDS in the schools. It was titled, “Fight Fear with Facts,” an appropriate name, since 30 years ago there was limited knowledge about the disease. The program took place at a time when members of the public, fearing that AIDS could be spread easily in a classroom environment, were demonstrating in front of the state Department of Education building, chanting, “Keep AIDS out of schools!”
To address the situation, NJSBA brought together education, medical and public health experts. They conveyed accurate information about how the disease was transmitted and the fact that the presence of a student with AIDS in the classroom did not pose a threat to his classmates. The end result was critical policy guidance for local boards of education.
Since then, our schools have faced other threats, such as the H1N1 flu, and NJSBA responded through the same approach: facts and preparedness.
Enterovirus will not be the last health and safety issue that schools will need to address. But whether the threat is physical, medical or emotional, fighting fear with facts will remain the wisest and most effective course of action.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected].