In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria roared through the Caribbean just 12 days apart. The schools on St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) did not re-open until October 24. Teachers talked about how many of the books and materials in their classrooms were moldy and how teachers and staff had to help the janitorial staff clean up classrooms. Parents shared stories of their children coming home from school with mosquito bites all over their arms and legs. Schools could not always run the air-conditioning because they were operating using generators.
Finding a natural fit
As a team lead in the Division of Adolescent and School Health, I have expertise in how health departments and federal agencies should work with schools. So when I was deployed to support health communication activities in the US Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria, I offered to support the USVI Department of Health doing health communication outreach to schools. We worked quickly to connect with schools and distribute materials to students and their families about how to stay safe and healthy after a hurricane.
Making a vision a reality
I worked with Director of Public Relations, Nykole Tyson, at the USVI Department of Health and the USVI Department of Education to determine how many children were enrolled on St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John and which educational materials from CDC to distribute. With support from the CDC Foundation, we printed and distributed flyer packets for over 16,000 K-12 students on the three islands to take home to their families. The packets contained CDC-developed materials about how to stay safe after a hurricane, including tips for food and water safety, how to prevent mosquito bites, the health risks from mold, how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, and mental health. Since 35% of the children on St. Croix speak Spanish, we made the messages available in both English and Spanish.
Each child was also given a copy of the Ready Wrigley Flooding and Mold Activity Book as part of the flyer packet. Ready Wrigley is a series of CDC-developed activity books for children 5-9 years old and their families to help them talk about and prepare for emergencies. There are nine Ready Wrigley books that provide tips, activities and a story about disaster preparedness. The flooding and mold activity book talks specifically about safe mold clean-up after a flood and how kids should never touch mold and always tell a grown-up if they see mold.
Giving children a voice
American Education Week takes place every November. The USVI Department of Education contacted Director Tyson and asked her to read to elementary school students on St. Croix. She asked me if I would like to join her visits to kindergarten and first grade classrooms. I jumped at the chance to interact with students in-person and suggested we read the Ready Wrigley Flooding and Mold Activity Book. I even colored the pictures in the book and completed the activities so the children could follow along. We shared the Ready Wrigley books with the teachers at each school we visited, giving teachers enough copies of the book for every student to take one home.
All of the students really wanted their stories heard. One first grader recounted how his mother and grandparents told him to stay far away from the cleaning products while they cleaned up the mold in their home. Another little girl shared how she was personally impacted by mold. She had to sleep on the sofa in her home because there was mold all over her bed and the other furniture in her bedroom. Several other children described the mold they found on the front door of their homes after the hurricane.
Fulfilling a passion
Working with school-aged children is so rewarding. This deployment experience was the best I could have hoped for. The time I spent in the USVI made me realize my personal and professional goal to provide public health education materials to children and their families. I have always believed that public health prevention work should begin with school-aged youth and it is my lifelong public health mission to ensure that they have a voice.
Malaika Washington has been a Commissioned Corps Officer in the United Stated Public Health Service since October 2009. She is a team lead in the Division of Adolescent and School Health, the only division at CDC that funds education agencies directly. Her deployment to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the 2017 HHS Hurricane Response was the first time she deployed for a public health emergency.