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How Did Science Teachers Address Ebola? And How Will They Respond to Zika?

In the fall of 2014, worries about the Ebola virus prompted school closings and other precautions in various districts across the United States. Infectious-disease experts and public health officials said such emergency protocols were unnecessary—but clearly concerns were running high.

A new study looks at how K-12 educators responded to the Ebola outbreak, and finds that three-quarters of high school science teachers devoted some class time to the topic, usually about one or two class periods.

The study, conducted by Horizon Research Inc., with help from the National Science Teachers Association and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, aims to shed light on how teachers will adapt their teaching to address other health crises, including the Zika virus, which could spread to the United States in the months ahead.

Student Interest Was Key

The researchers analyzed responses from a nationally representative sample of about 1,300 elementary, middle, and high school science teachers. 

About 80 percent of middle school teachers and 46 percent of elementary school teachers addressed Ebola in their classrooms.

Overall, teachers were most likely to cite student interest as the reason they included the topic in their lessons. They most often addressed the virus using whole-class discussion or question-and-answer sessions, with the students asking the questions.

The topics most commonly addressed were the definition of Ebola, how it is transmitted (and how that can be prevented), symptoms, and the likelihood of its spreading in the United States.

Middle and high school teachers who did not address Ebola often cited time as a barrier. For elementary teachers who did not teach it, the appropriateness of the topic for the age group was a major concern, as well as availability of resources. 

Looking Ahead to Zika

To get information on Ebola, teachers were most likely to use the Internet. Websites from health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Insitutes of Health were the most frequently used sources for information.

Teachers rated TV news, TV and radio talk shows, online-only sources (such as the Huffington Post or Yahoo News), social media, conversations with other teachers, and district-provided resources as minimally or not at all helpful information sources. 

The study also looked at whether teachers could answer questions about Ebola correctly, and found that they got about 75 or 80 percent of them right.

According to a press release from Sean Smith, president of Horizon Research Inc. and the principal investigator of the study, the findings have a bearing on how teachers will handle future health epidemics. "If, as scientists predict, Zika spreads into the United States in coming months, the topic is likely to capture students' interest and generate questions. And if Ebola is a guide, science teachers will respond, whether Zika is part of their curriculum or not," the release says. "Rather than teachers searching out resources on their own, which was the case with Ebola, science teachers would benefit from having vetted, appropriate resources for addressing Zika when their students ask about the virus."

The research group recommends that professional organizations such as NSTA and district-level science directors help point teachers to such resources, and in a timely way.

See the full preliminary report, "Stopping an Epidemic of Misinformation: How K-12 Science Teachers Responded to Ebola."

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