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New boarding method could help keep you from getting sick while flying.
August 4, 2017

Researchers say factors like plane size and boarding method can have a huge impact on infection rates

Air travel may be the quickest way to get to your vacation destination, but it’s also one of the speediest ways for infectious diseases to spread between people, cities and countries.

So when patient zero — or a sneezing toddler — makes it onto the plane, what will minimize your chances of getting sick? An Arizona State University team that includes School of Human Evolution and Social Change Assistant Professor Anuj Mubayi; Department of Biomedical Informatics Associate Professor Matthew Scotch; School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning Assistant Research Professor Robert Pahle; and outside researchers Sirish Namilae, Ashok Srinivasan and Pierrot Derjany has turned to applied math and computing tools for the answer.

Their new study reveals that factors like plane size and boarding method can have a huge impact on infection rates, and includes new recommendations that may soon be adopted at an airway near you.

The best and worst airline policies for passenger health

Plane rides are a triple threat when it comes to spreading sickness: They force people into a closed space for a long period of time, make close contact with others unavoidable, and often bring together people from far-ranging geographic regions who may have different levels of disease vulnerability.

Because of this, officials often use travel restrictions to help prevent disease spread during an epidemic.

However, no system is completely foolproof; during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, for example, there were still a few incidents where infected passengers used commercial airplanes.

To make flights safer for that worst-case scenario, the research team created a hybrid model that evaluates how people move and how infectious diseases randomly spread through contact with a host. Its first application was to simulate how Ebola might spread on an airplane.

The model predicts how many passengers would be infected after using one of several different boarding methods, and also evaluates the impact of other factors like deplaning methods and plane size.

photo of passengers standing in plane aisle
Common boarding methods force passengers to wait together in the aisle, leaving them vulnerable to contagious disease.

Unfortunately for current fliers, the commonly used three-section boarding technique, where passengers board by first class, middle zone and back section, is actually the worst strategy for reducing the number of infected. The reason this works so poorly is that it forces passengers to stand together in the aisle while they all wait to get to their seats, which means more time for a tightly packed group to be exposed to the contagious passenger.

The good news is that there are safer options. This includes the two-section, random method, where the plane is divided in two lengthwise sections and passengers board randomly within those sections. By preventing any hallway bottlenecks and keeping passengers from being next to any one person for very long, this approach results in the lowest number of new infections, according to the model.

“Surprisingly, changing policies — even those as simple as boarding patterns — can have a significant impact on the global spread of an infectious disease,” Mubayi said.

As far as getting off the plane, the team found that how it happens has little impact on infection rates because it’s a much faster process, so people aren’t all crowded together for as long.

For plane size, you might think the bigger the plane, the smaller your odds, right? Not quite. In fact, the study found that planes with less than 150 seats are better at reducing new infections; there are fewer susceptible people present overall, fewer people within a given person’s contact radius and less time spent moving through the plane to reach assigned seats.

“Using smaller airplanes during an outbreak, instead of completely banning flights to a specific destination, can drastically reduce the probability of introduction of infection,” Mubayi said.

Sunny skies ahead?

So, how does all this information make us safer? According to the model, if airlines used current boarding strategies during an Ebola epidemic, there would be a 67 percent chance of infection rates reaching the level of 20 air-travel-related cases per month — and that’s whether the planes are large or small. 

If, on the other hand, airlines used the study’s safest boarding method, the two-section random strategy, then the chance of that level of infection drops to 40 percent.

A more concrete plan for safer flights is already lining up on the runway, so to speak. The research team has proposed its outbreak-reducing strategies at the government and airline levels, so that the only thing passengers catch are their flights.

The most promising results of this study, however, are its applications for scenarios outside of Ebola on a plane, Mubayi said. The model’s parameters, or the settings that it runs on, can be swapped out to test other directly transmitted diseases, including common ones like the flu, as well as disease spread in other crowded locations, like airports and subways.

This adaptability will give scientists and policy makers a huge advantage in the effort to stop outbreaks before they happen. By understanding more about how modern human environments operate in real time, these ASU researchers are beginning to make society's most populous airports, shopping centers and school campuses tools in the fight against disease, instead of liabilities.

Mikala Kass

communications assistant , School of Human Evolution and Social Change


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Parents, teachers need to be creative in finding ways to interact

ASU program prepares teachers to be part of the community where they teach.
New ASU project to engage parents in culturally relevant way to share knowledge.
Mary Lou Fulton curriculum teaches that parent-teacher communication is two-way.
August 4, 2017

ASU expert on teacher training says every family has something to contribute to school community; it might just take fresh approach

As families send their children back into the classroom, these first weeks of the school year are a critical time for parents and teachers to create connections that will make it easier to address any sticky issues that come up later, according to an expert on teacher training at Arizona State University.

But work and family responsibilities coupled with the demands on teachers’ time can make that difficult.

“It’s about being creative,” said Margarita Jimenez-Silva, an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU. “There are a lot of ways to make families feel like they’re part of the school community.”

Jimenez-Silva researches parent engagement, especially among underserved populations, and was a middle-school teacher in California before she became a professor.

She talked to ASU Now about parent-teacher interactions.

Question: Why is it important for parents to engage with their children’s schools?

Answer: All of the research indicates that parental engagement helps the child feel part of the community, it helps with retention rates, it helps with academic achievement. The research is conclusive that it’s beneficial to both the child and the teacher because communication is easier.

Margarita Jimenez-Silva

For the family, engagement shows that school is a priority and is the important work of the child. And the parents feel like they’re in this journey of education in partnership with the teacher and not working at different purposes. It can be alienating for parents to not feel part of the community.

Q: What are some roadblocks to parent-teacher interaction?

A: There are a lot of cultural differences in how parents engage with schools. For a lot of first-generation parents or parents who are not as familiar with our school system, there are not a lot questions about academics. It’s very much about behavior. I’m a former classroom teacher, and the parents would say, “Is my kid being respectful?” Very rarely would I get questions like, “Is his reading on grade level?” 

That has to do with the teacher being seen as the expert on academics, and it’s disrespectful to ask about that.

Also, a lot of teacher preparation focuses on one-way communication. We prepare our teachers on how to communicate expectations with parents or when there’s discipline problems. There isn’t enough focus on how do you really reach out to parents to find out what their questions and concerns are.

Even with back-to-school night or parent-teacher conferences, it’s very much a delivery of information as opposed to establishing a relationship with the parents.

Q: So how do both sides creatively connect?

A: It’s about cultural community wealth. Every family has a source of wealth to contribute.

Teachers should understand that there are different ways to engage parents, and it’s not just about who can be a room mom or help with the worksheets. And parents must be creative in offering what they can to the classroom and to the school.

I worked at a charter middle school, and every family had to donate a few hours a month. As a teacher, I had to be very creative about how the parents could help me that didn’t involve them coming to the school because they had little ones at home or transportation issues.

I made a list. I need curtains. Is there a parent who can sew? I had a dad who was a semi-professional soccer player. Could he come in and do a clinic? That helps him feel a part of the community and helps other families see his role and say, “Hey, I have something I can contribute that I didn’t realize was valuable.”

My greatest asset were parents who had business connections who could hook us up for the carnival or other things.

I had a parent who could never go on a field trip because she had six kids at home. So she volunteered to call the other parents the night before. She felt like part of the field trip even though she wasn’t actually going.

The other thing that was really successful was having a core group of parents who share the cultural and language backgrounds of the families I was trying to engage. So if I had a family that was not participating, they would be a liaison between me and that other family.

Q: So parents should speak up about what they’re willing to offer?

A: Teachers should know your skills so they can tap into the resources you have.

When I had my doctorate I was teaching five classes, and it took somersaults for me to get the time to go volunteer at my sons’ school. And they would say, “We need you to sharpen pencils.” And not that I think I’m better than sharpening pencils, but I could have helped the kid who needed reading intervention, which I knew how to do.

I know teachers are frantic, but it’s a matter of being organized to make use of the resources they have.

Q: Are teachers being better prepared in how to cultivate parent relationships?

A: At ASU, we have a program that prepares teachers to be a part of the communities where they teach, so it’s not just drive in and drive out. That builds trust with parents.

Wendy OakesWendy Oakes is an assistant professor in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College who researches practices that improve educational outcomes in children with emotional and behavioral disorders. and I are doing a a cool project in the next few weeks in an early childhood special education setting to engage parents in a culturally relevant way to engage families to share knowledge.

A few years ago we did a systemic review looking at our syllabi and how we prepared teachers and found it was very one-way. Now we are embedding in multiple courses the idea that the communications between parents and teachers has to be two-ways. And we’re seeing our graduates now who have gone through that are now thinking in this way.

Parents should be empowered to say, “These are the skills I have. Can this be of service to you?”

For more information on ASU's program to prepare teachers to better interact with parents, click here.

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Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now