Three weeks after Beaufort County School District teachers traveled to West Africa, several school board members and parents question the way the district handled public information about Ebola concerns.
In fact, some say the teachers should have been put on paid administrative leave for 21 days, the incubation period for Ebola.
A Facebook group that formed over concerns about the virus' potential health risk now has more than 700 members, many of whom criticized the district for not taking enough precautions. And some school board members say the district could have provided greater safety assurances to the community.
Superintendent Jeff Moss has said that, to his knowledge, no district employee has an infectious disease. He also said the district has protocols that would ensure the safety of students and staff returning to school Aug. 18, but he would not say if there was cause to use them.
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Moss also refused to acknowledge publicly that any staff or faculty had traveled to Ebola-stricken nations -- even after he raised concerns himself to board members after a meeting Aug. 9. At a news conference he called Aug. 15, Moss refused to examine a screen shot of a Facebook page in which several people identifying themselves as district employees made posts about their recent mission work in Nigeria.
Sunday marked the 21st day of their return from that mission trip, according to dates on that Facebook page, which has since been removed.
Board of Education member JoAnn Orischak said balancing public knowledge and employee privacy is difficult.
"The district would never be able to tell you if they tested someone, because of all the guidelines surrounding medical privacy," she said. "But I want to ask, what would have been the harm in acknowledging they were there, while not providing any identifiable information?"
School board member Jim Beckert raised similar questions. He said he was surprised by the casual manner in which Moss raised the issue of Ebola and the procedures to address it in a public setting, immediately after a board workshop in early August.
Beckert acknowledged the need to protect employee privacy, but said he also understands the public's need for information pertaining to public health.
"I believe the board could have and probably should have been informed in a different way so that there was no undue stress added to students and parents as the school year was about to begin," he said.
However, school board Chairman Bill Evans said he takes responsibility for many of the concerns that arose around the teachers. Evans confirmed to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in a story Aug. 13 that several teachers had recently returned from West Africa.
"I probably raised some concerns that I didn't need to, and it put (superintendent) Jeff Moss and the district in a difficult situation," Evans said. "It was a very natural concern that followed, and I understand that. But I just hope others understand the complexity of the federal privacy laws that we must work with."
By sharing the information he did, Evans said he gave the impression that Moss was not being forthright when he was "just following what he believed the law required him to do."
Moss said Friday that, even in retrospect, he would not have done more to identify the teachers. He said that he and the district correctly followed federal privacy laws that protect employees' rights.
Moss acknowledged that people from the district were "all over the continent of Africa," but would not say if any were in West Africa specifically. He again stressed that no staff members were within areas of known outbreaks.
According to the information on the mission trip Facebook page, the travelers were about 225 miles from outbreaks in Lagos, Nigeria. Posts on the page also suggested they visited a hospital.
"If I, at any point in time, thought that a staff member's travel would have an adverse effect on the school district, I would have identified that possibility," Moss said.
However, some residents say extra precautions should have been taken.
In a Facebook group titled "Beaufort Better Safe Than Sorry," its members called on the district to place the teachers on paid leave until what would be the 21-day incubation for Ebola had passed. According to the mission trip Facebook page, the teachers returned from Nigeria on Aug. 10.
Attempts to reach one of the teachers identified on the travelers' Facebook page was unsuccessful.
"Giving paid leave to (the teachers) does not hurt anyone," the creator of the group posted. "But handling this matter with an abundance of caution is the right thing to do."
The group said it praises the teachers for their "selfless mission trip," but wanted to ensure everyone's safety.
Evans said the concerns surrounding the issue seem to have subsided since school began Aug. 18.
He said he's confident in the way the district handled the situation, and that no one in the district has been at risk since the start of the school year. He only wishes he would have been more cautious about what he disclosed.
"There is a very thin line between protecting employees' rights and the public's right to know what's going on," he said.
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.
- Beaufort County district calls news conference to discuss Ebola concerns, Aug. 15, 2014
- Video: District conducts news conference about Ebola concerns, Aug. 14, 2014
- Teachers' return from West Africa raises Ebola concerns, Aug. 13, 2014
- Beaufort Better Safe Than Sorry Facebook group
- S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Ebola recommendations
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Ebola information
- 2014 CDC Ebola Outbreak Information (as of Aug. 28)