NJ School Nurses Learn to Identify Ebola, Quell Student and Family Fears

Hoping they’ll never be needed, state DOE issues procedures and protocols to deal with deadly disease

School nurses have long been part of this nation’s front line against epidemics, going back to the turn of the past century and the spread of tuberculosis.

Now, New Jersey is again turning to its school nurses to provide a standard procedure and protocol for addressing the possibility of Ebola contamination. They also hope to allay any fears and correct any misinformation among students, their families, or even schools themselves.

The state Department of Education in the past week put out guidance to both public and private schools for dealing with students who may have been exposed to Ebola – and differentiating them from the scores of their classmates who come down with the flu or a cold.

“It is important for everyone to understand the signs and symptoms of the Ebola virus, how the Ebola virus could affect students and families in our State, and how to adequately prepare and respond as necessary,” said assistant commissioner Susan Martz in the written guidance sent Thursday.

In a subsequent webinar for more than 260 school nurses yesterday, department officials stuck to the script of federal and state health guidelines of what West African populations are at risk of exposure, what the symptoms are, and how schools are to react, both in terms of notifying health officials and isolating the students.

No such incidents have yet arisen in New Jersey, state officials said, but there have been a few cases where schools have faced the prospect — and at least in one instance, might have overreacted.

The incident occurred in Maple Shade, where an elementary school made a public announcement to families in October that a new family coming from Rwanda would stay at home for 21 days — even though Rwanda is 2,500 miles away from the affected areas of West Africa. It was unclear if the school made the request, but its principal later apologized for causing any alarm.

The state’s letter sent to districts on Friday stressed that a school cannot deny or defer a student enrollment in school based on his or her immigration status or even a lack of medical records.

“The Department has consistently maintained that school districts are prohibited from implementing discriminatory enrollment practices, intentionally or unintentionally, that may exclude children from enrolling in public school based on their immigration status,” read the letter sent to every district.

“According to [state administrative code] N.J.A.C. 6A:22-4.1(h), enrollment of eligible students cannot be denied based on the absence of a student’s medical information.”

The letter said admission could be postponed for required vaccinations — not an issue in the case of Ebola — but that schools are also required to make such vaccinations available if a family cannot meet the requirement.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has been among those monitoring state and local government’s reactions to possible Ebola contaminations, most notably in the much-publicized case of the nurse returning from West Africa who was quarantined against her will – despite not showing symptoms.

Udi Ofer, the ACLU’s executive director, said the state’s directives to schools were proper.

“The Department of Education should be commended for issuing a science-driven policy, and for reminding schools that they cannot discriminate against immigrant students,” Ofer said in an emailed statement.