New York City school teachers contain fear, spread information about Ebola

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The Ebola virus hit the U.S. last month, and since then it’s been hard to parse through the Ebola-related noise. For kids, it must be even harder, and since Oct. 23 — when Dr. Craig Spencer became the first, and so far only, person to have been diagnosed with the virus in New York — educators in the city have been tasked with protecting and enlightening students and parents without needlessly raising fears.

On Oct. 24, the New York City Department of Education sent out a letter to parents and families explaining the situation. School leaders received a more lengthy letter (per the DOE website, the letter was last updated on Oct. 23) outlining how to handle suspected cases — including what to do if a student or teacher who has recently returned from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone starts showing symptoms in school. All of the material can be found on the DOE’s website, in several languages, and with links to more detailed information and further resources.

Also posted to the DOE’s Ebola page is a document called “Dealing With Stressful Events,” which provides basic tips for managing stress, like, “take care of yourself,” “speak up if you are overwhelmed,” and “get information from a reliable source,” including, wisely, “Remember that too much media (for example, TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) can upset you and others around you, especially children.”


Some private schools are providing similar advice to parents and families. Dr. Samantha Meltzer, who serves as Friends Seminary’s Director of Support Services and lower school psychologist, says she worked with the school nurse and the head of the school to craft a letter to members of the Friends community. “We just really tried to reiterate what we have learned from the medical professionals in the field — that the risk to people in NYC remains extremely low, and that we’re following department of health best practices.”

The most important message Meltzer and her colleagues send to parents, she says, is that “children really rely on the adults in their world to remain calm.” And to make sure kids are aware that infected healthcare workers, sometimes portrayed as villains in the press, are the opposite. She says it’s important that members of the Friends community “recognize the humanitarian mission that some of these doctors and nurses and other members of the wider community have engaged in to help those in need.”

Teachers also fold Ebola education into pre-existing curricula. Suzette Freedman, a physical education teacher at PS 75 in Manhattan, used the school’s mandatory HIV/AIDs course to talk about the virus. “The HIV/AIDS curriculum is really about hygiene and how disease spreads, so its perfect for discussing Ebola,” says Freedman.

Freedman teaches students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and she says they are very much aware of the virus. “The other day a little girl was crying because she thought her dad was going to catch Ebola, because he was going to Brooklyn. Other kids might not express it like that, but once you get the conversation started you see that they are reassured they don’t need to worry about it.”


Educators who teach older students have also made Ebola part of the curriculum. Meltzer says that at Friends, French teachers have incorporated articles about the virus in the language, which is Guinea’s official tongue. And Horace Mann physics teacher Jeff Weitz based a week-long unit on the subject. “I gave them a couple of newspaper stories to read. And we talked a bit about risks and stakes… and the idea that [Ebola is] high stakes if you get it, but the odds aren’t very good [of contracting it].”

He explained that “we had talked a bit about information science and entropy… then this whole Ebola thing broke.” Weitz, whose class is made up of mostly seniors, said that the unit also served to dispel myths around the virus. “They had it wrong about the contagious piece. They were talking about airborne contagion, and I was thinking no, no that’s not right… there’s so much media [about Ebola] that’s either wrong or misleading or frightening, or all of the above.” Horace Mann families also received a letter about Ebola from the headmaster.


Other teachers are taking a less formal approach to correcting misinformation. Sharona Kahn, a math teacher for 6th, 7th and 8th graders at Kinneret Day School in the Bronx, says she jumps into student conversations when she can. “One student was saying ‘Oh my god, it’s so scary, [Dr. Spencer] is so close to us.’ And I said something to her along the lines of, ‘You’re not in danger. Do you know him? Did you smooch him?’ And she sort of made a face like, well, no, and I said, ‘Well, then the risk is very low.’… It’s important for teachers to come into it with a sense of humor.”

Recently, two Senegalese boys were beaten in the Bronx by a group of classmates who called them “Ebola.” Kahn raised the incident as an example of why it is so important to make sure students are aware of the facts. “A lot of rumors get started in middle school. I heard one student say, ‘if you have the hiccups it’s a sign of Ebola.’ I said no, that’s not true, but that’s something that a kid hears and it spreads.”


Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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