Facing questions and worries about Ebola, the state’s top school board on Wednesday approved emergency rules that give local superintendents sweeping new authority to close public schools and send students home if they sense a threat.
Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the panel took the action as a precaution “given the circumstances we are living in now.”
“Let’s don’t wait until there is an event to be prepared,” Roemer said after the meeting.
“This is a first step,” he said. “I don’t think it is a final step.”
Under the new rules, a local superintendent can dismiss schools due to an emergency that now includes “any actual or imminent threat to public health or safety, which may result in loss of life, disease or injury.”
Superintendents can also remove a student or staff member from the school for as long as needed if there is “reliable evidence or information” from a public health officer or physician that he or she has a communicable disease considered a threat to the school population.
Assistant Superintendent Erin Bendily said the state Department of Health and Hospitals has already provided information on symptoms and other information about communicable diseases to local school districts and will continue to do so.
Bendily said local educators have asked about what signs to look for aside from typical student coughs and colds.
She said school leaders have been given telephone numbers to public health offices that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
State leaders also said parents and others should be glad to hear that precautions are being taken.
“You are starting to hear the conversations and the phone calls and making sure our ducks are in a row,” Roemer said. “I mean, they should be assured that we are not ignoring what is happening out there.”
Bendily made the same point.
“We have no cases here in Louisiana,” she noted. “But we want to be prepared. We want our schools to be prepared.”
BESE’s action is unusual in that it means the new rules take effect immediately, and last for 120 days, during the public comment period.
“We don’t want to take six months, at least make sure we have this first step taken care of, which is somebody that is there on-site can make this decision and we can move children to a safer area, or even send them home if we need to.”
The changes, which do not cite Ebola specifically, become final in four months.
The new policy also makes clear that students who have to miss school because they are quarantined have a valid reason to be absent.
The student would be provided with any missed assignments, homework or other instructional services.
Exactly how that would be done would be worked out between the superintendent, principal, and state and local health officers.
The new guidelines will be added to the Louisiana Handbook for School Administrators, which covers issues such as shooting and bomb threats and allowable absences.
The issue was not on BESE’s initial agenda.
It was added earlier this week to the emergency agenda.
The changes were approved without discussion, and followed a two-hour discussion and public hearing about the future of John McDonogh High School in New Orleans.
“Everyone is trying to learn their way through this, as the National Health Institute is and everyone else,” said Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge.
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