Louisiana, Do Your Homework: Student Absenteeism, Not Ebola, is the Real Epidemic

As a preventative measure to protect against the spread of Ebola, the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education made new emergency changes to the state’s governing handbook.

However, there is no emergency — just an Ebola scare, which the board simply contributed to by making changes to sound policy. There is currently no epidemic of the Ebola virus in the U.S., where three cases have been reported, with one fatality.

The best preventative measure schools can take to avert an outbreak of a communicable disease is to effectively teach about viruses.

RELATED: Nine years after Katrina, we’re still asking the wrong questions about education

Nevertheless, the board adopted changes to the Bulletin as emergency rules, which do not require public comment and go into effect immediately. Specifically, it affirmed that a local superintendent or chief charter school officer can “dismiss any or all schools due to emergency situations, including any actual or imminent threat to public health or safety which may result in loss of life, disease, or injury; an actual or imminent threat of natural disaster, force majeure, or catastrophe which may result in loss of life, injury or damage to property; and, when an emergency situation has been declared by the governor, the state health officer, or the governing authority of the school.”

I’ve never seen a school leader buck an edict from a governor, state health official or disaster manager.

Avowing superintendent powers to dismiss school in reaction to the Ebola scare is a solution in search of a problem.

RELATED: New Orleans schools should stop hiring so many teachers who don’t understand the students’ culture or backgrounds

The former policy under Health and Safety rules was built to thwart the spread of disease and prevent autocratic decisions based in fear. School disease management should require cooperation between school and health officials to prevent what is happening across the U.S. – hysteria. Giving autonomy to district leaders can create chaos.

Having experienced lackluster disaster management during Hurricane Katrina, I can appreciate the need for speed and direction, but those two elements should stem from better coordination. The board could have used the fearful context to remind school leaders of their partners in the event of an actual emergency.

However, the board did offer a solution that found a problem – chronic absenteeism.

One of the emergency changes to the bulletin states, “A student who has been quarantined by order of state or local health officers following prolonged exposure to or direct contact with a person diagnosed with a contagious, deadly disease, and is temporarily unable to attend school, shall be provided any missed assignments, homework, or other instructional services in core academic subjects in the home, hospital environment, or temporary shelter to which he has been assigned.”

RELATED: Schools are doling out suspensions “like Tic Tacs,” here are some ways to keep kids in the classroom

Sorry kids, being sick doesn’t mean you can’t do your homework.

The board is correct to ensure that schools and districts provide assignments that would have been given to a student who should otherwise be in school. There’s too much technology not to ensure that every student who is temporarily out of school receives the education he or she needs.

Students are more likely to succeed academically if they are in school. So if you’re not in school, you still need an education. Chronic absenteeism – missing 10 percent of school or more – is truly and epidemic in low-income communities. In their report on chronic absenteeism, researchers Balfanz and Byrnes state, “Like bacteria in a hospital, chronic absenteeism can wreak havoc long before it is discovered.”

RELATED: In New Orleans, a case study in how school, health care decentralization affect neediest children

I have a proposal. Let’s test schools’ abilities to operationalize the new requirements by distributing lessons on viruses to students who have been suspended or expelled. We can test those students on the effectiveness of those lessons. Based on student grades, the state can see their readiness to actually implement their policy.

An aside – expulsion and suspension in Louisiana is a clear and present danger.

The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights compiles a School Discipline Information Report, which outlines New Orleans schools’ suspension and expulsion data. These data are often alarming. One school had a 63 percent suspension rate in the 2012-13 academic year. Another great resource is the Family and Youth Servicing Center, which has helped reduced truancy in the East Baton Rouge Parish school district by 30 percent since 2009. FYSC makes clear that truancy (unexcused absence) positively correlates with crime – a real threat.

Officials don’t have to scare people into readiness. We can actually teach our way toward prevention and true protection. The only outbreak that the United States needs to worry about is an Ebola scare. The way to combat fear is education.

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).