10/22/2014 09:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Letter: Ebola Is Closer to New Jersey Than to Rwanda


To Beth Norcia, Superintendent
Maple Shade School District
New Jersey, USA

Dear Mrs. Norcia,

I was raised in metro-Atlanta, Georgia, where the DeKalb County School system nurtured me.

I attended a number of schools within the district. At Jolly Elementary School, I tasted green eggs and ham for the first time, climbed trees and played with earthworms. At Rockbridge Elementary School, I learned how to do a cartwheel with my legs straight up in the air because I used to watch my classmate, April, do hers like a graceful gymnast. I wanted my hair tossed in the air like April's hair, but mine was too short and curly.

I joined the 4-H Club at Hambrick Elementary school, joined my peers in making a pond outside. I dug through the Georgia red clay, helped place a huge liner over the hole, then filled it up with water. Then, I carried medium-sized stones and pebbles along the liner, along with potted plants and flowers. And then when we dumped brightly colored fish into the water, I remember swelling with pride and glee. It was childhood bliss at its best.

At Stone Mill Elementary School, I wore an ivory lace dress to my sixth grade graduation. Plastic flowers surrounded the scrunchie in my hair. My stomach fluttered each time I walked up to the podium to receive another certificate and trophy and to shake the principal's hand. My parents took my siblings and I to Pizza Hut to celebrate. That was the end of my elementary school years.

Those were my formative years. I was a very shy student. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Harshman encouraged me to come out of my shell of timidity. She invited me and other academically-well-performing students to her home for a pool party. I jumped right in, even though I didn't know how to swim. She said she liked my bathing suit. She offered me brownies. She was my friend.

I befriended many of my elementary school teachers and in turn, they guided me and helped shape my perspective on life. My sixth grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Kathleen Hobbs had a profound effect on me. She encouraged me to write, and I did, and eventually became a journalist. So, essentially, my career path budded in elementary school.

The mind and education of a child is so precious, so crucially precious.

That is why I was disappointed to hear what happened at Howard Yocum Elementary School in regards to the two Rwandan children who have been delayed from starting school due to Ebola fears.

I now live in Nigeria, having moved from the United States two years ago to work as a journalist. Nigeria had its own Ebola outbreak after a Liberian-American man flew into the country in July. Nigerian health workers handled 20 Ebola cases. On Monday, the World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free attributing some of Nigeria's success to "world-class epidemiological detective work."

The mass hysteria that seemed to have risen after the school nurse at Howard Yocum Elementary School sent a letter to the staff to inform them of the arrival of students from Rwanda was uncalled for.

Rwanda has not been affected by Ebola. East Africa has not been affected by this current Ebola outbreak. However, one of the parents of a Howard Yocum Elementary School student was quoted as saying, "Anybody from that area should just stay there until all this stuff is resolved. There's nobody affected here let's just keep it that way."

I am compelled to ask: What area is this parent talking about?

Because from this parent's reasoning, it seems the parent is talking about the entire continent of Africa as an Ebola-affected area. Let's not forget that Africa is a continental mass with a total land area of more than three million hectares, three times the size of the United States. This is the true size of Africa: see map.

Why create unnecessary panic? Why breed paranoia?

I understand the Howard Yocum Elementary School's nurse explained that she was following guidelines from the Burlington County's Health Department and protocol from people arriving in the United States from "an Ebola affected area."

But according to one reporter: The school nurse acknowledged Rwanda "is not an area identified as a country with an Ebola outbreak," but said she planned to take the children's temperature three times a day as a precaution against "a severe and often fatal viral illness."

Here are the facts:

* Rwanda, an East African country, is about 2,879 miles (4633km) away from Liberia.

*Africa has 54 countries and 3 of them (all in West Africa) are battling Ebola: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

*New Jersey is about 1,365 miles from Dallas, Texas, an area that is experiencing its own bout of Ebola. (That means New Jersey is closer to an Ebola-hit "area" than Rwanda is.)

* Spain, France, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom have all handled cases of Ebola, whereas, Rwanda has no reported cases of Ebola.

* The World Health Organization has already stated that the spread of Ebola in Europe is "quite unavoidable."

Now, considering these facts, will the Maple Shade School System create another round of panic if a student arrives from Geneva in Switzerland which is less than 700 miles from Madrid, Spain? What about students coming from Greece? Will the nurse at Howard Yocum Elementary School release another letter if a student arrives from any European country? What about students coming from Texas?

The most important issue here is that young minds are at stake.

Are we promoting ignorance and hysteria? The widespread ignorance of Africa among the American population could pose a challenge on public health workers' efforts to spread awareness about Ebola in the United States.

Africa is a continent, not a country. It's absurd to refer to a continent as an area. The students of Maple School District have a right to know this. They have a right to be enlightened, not misguided. The wonder of the elementary school system is that teachers have a chance to enrich children's minds.The school is a nursery for growing intellects, not an arena for fear-mongers. Howard Yocum Elementary School should not have allowed parents to set the school's agenda concerning the Rwandan kids.

What message is the school administration sending when it enabled two youngsters from Rwanda to stay at home because they came from a country where an Ebola outbreak is affecting three other countries almost three thousand miles away? Are we blacklisting Africa? Is this a case of stigmatizing two children simply because they come from Africa?

Thank you for your time, Mrs. Norcia.


Chika Oduah, Journalist