Update March 2, 1:30 p.m.:
According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, two additional schools closed Monday: Lake Washington Institute of Technology, a technical college, and Cedar Park Christian, a private school in Bothell. Colville School District, in Eastern Washington, shut all its schools Monday.
The Lake Washington Institute of Technology later announced it would be closed Tuesday as well.
If all efforts fail to contain coronavirus at her son’s school, Lisa Myers Bulmash says her family is ready to lie low.
At her home near Jackson High School in Mill Creek, which will be closed for disinfection on Monday after a student there tested positive for the virus, she and her husband, Greg, have stocked up on fresh food from Costco, U.S. Coast Guard rations and emergency water.
The decision to close and clean, Bulmash said Sunday, was good. But the short automated call she got on Friday from the Everett School District — a few hours after officials there learned of the case through Snohomish County health officials — left her wanting more information.
Bulmash is one of many local parents contending with a new kind of school-related disruption: Closure because of concerns related to the SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus. Eighteen confirmed cases and six fatalities have been associated with the virus in Washington state so far.
By Monday, more schools in the Seattle area had announced closures as precautions against the virus, which can spread through the close contact that comes with everyday life in schools.
Hazen High School in Renton was closed Monday as a student with flu-like symptoms awaits test results for the virus. “We have mobilized our custodial staff to begin thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting Hazen,” the district’s superintendent, Damien Pattenaude, wrote on Facebook.
Kentwood High and Covington Elementary Schools in Kent also are closing Monday after a parent of two Kentwood students began to experience flu-like symptoms, according to a notice on the Kent School District website. Another member of the affected family works at Covington Elementary, but did not have symptoms, according to the notice. The family are quarantined at home and await test results.
Both schools are to be disinfected, which could take more than a day to complete, the notice said.
The Northshore School District is closing Frank Love Elementary on Monday for cleaning after a staff member was tested for the virus. Another district school, Bothell High School, was shuttered Thursday and Friday but reopened Monday.
All Northshore schools are slated to close Tuesday so faculty can plan and train for “remote learning” if it becomes necessary, according to a district letter to parents. All district campuses also will receive a deep cleaning Tuesday.
Some districts waited until Monday morning to announce closures for the day. At 8:55 a.m., the Puyallup School District tweeted to say that out of an “abundance of caution,” Ferucci Junior High School and Wildwood Elementary School were “closed for cleaning due to flu-like symptoms” of a relative of a Puyallup family. The district redirected Ferrucci students already on buses to Puyallup’s Karshner Center.
Also Monday, the North Kitsap School District announced on Facebook that Kingston High School would be closed “out of an abundance of caution” to “thoroughly clean and disinfect the school.” The district said that earlier in the morning, it was informed that a student at the school was being tested for the virus. The district added that the student had no siblings in school, and that students who were en route to Kingston High in the morning were moved to Choice Academy.
After learning that a student had come into close contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus, Mukilteo School District closed Mariner High School and Discovery Elementary School on Monday.
“Though this closure is not necessary from a public health point of view, we know that school districts act out of extra special caution when they are protecting children,” Snohomish Health District said in a statement about Mukilteo. “And the school knows its community best and is in charge of making decisions about the school.”
As the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases rises quickly in Washington state, due in part to a recent move by the state to test patient samples here instead of waiting on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, schools’ responses have come under scrutiny. In Bellevue, an area that had no confirmed cases of the virus, a petition calling for schools to be shut down has amassed nearly 1,000 signatures.
But because state law gives local health agencies the power to identify diseases and shut down schools, district leaders are often taking orders directly from county officials, and relaying secondhand information to families. In Everett, for example, district officials said last week they didn’t know the identity of the student who contracted the virus.
State law requires school staffers to report confirmed cases of the coronavirus or other infectious diseases to local health authorities. But until that happens, much of how districts decide to prepare is up to them.
And local districts are taking different approaches. While the Bellevue School District has been releasing information about how to stave off the virus — washing your hands, self-quarantining at the sign of symptoms — since late January, the Highline School District said last week it had yet to push any information out to families. Some districts used the weekend to disinfect buildings, while others are passing out extra hand sanitizer.
The politics of those decisions are delicate, usually treading the line between taking a threat seriously and not stirring panic. And it involves catering to community members who fall along a broad spectrum of concern.
Jarucia Jaycox Nirula, who has three kids in Everett Public Schools, said she was not shocked to hear about the Jackson High School student who tested positive for the virus and isn’t planning to keep her kids home from school this week.
“I’m not really concerned,” said Jaycox Nirula, who also teaches sixth grade in the Snohomish School District. “I don’t really see this as being more of a threat than the flu that goes around … The fear that’s being generated and dialogue surrounding it is way worse than what’s actually happening.”
So far, research suggests the risks associated with the virus are lower for young people, according to the CDC. Fewer kids than adults have been diagnosed with the virus. The risk for serious complications increases, however, if children have underlying health conditions.
Sonia Finrow, whose two children attend Mill Creek Elementary School in the Everett school district, also isn’t keeping her kids at home.
“I think it’s good to be cautious and get all the correct info,” she wrote in a message. “But a lot of the hysteria around it distracts from the truth and important facts … Listen to the medical authorities, take precautions like washing hands, [stay] home if sick, don’t take unnecessary trips to high risk areas and don’t spread misinformation.”
Catherine Matson, a science teacher in Highline, said she’s waiting on guidance from the district. “If one of my students has a compromised immune system, what should I do? Should I provide them a packet or do some online learning for them?” she asked. “I’m worried that if our school district leadership is not giving our families and students clear, science-based info, that it will fall on my shoulders.”
The Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics offered this guidance in a statement from its president, Elizabeth Meade, M.D.:
“We … recognize that parents of young children are likely to be among the most worried about COVID-19, and we encourage parents to follow preventive guidance, and health care providers to continue to direct families to evidence-based, reputable sources of information. Families may be affected by school closures, and it is critical that children with respiratory symptoms stay out of school just as adults who are ill should avoid going to work.”
The state Education Department released a memo late last week advising school districts to make contingency plans in case closures are necessary, and to make sure any services they provide are equitable, including online or distance learning.
“It will likely make more sense to cancel school and/or district services and make up missed days at the end of the school year, rather than deploying a distance learning model that can be accessed by some, but not all, of your students,” the memo said.
The calculus might be different for college administrators, who preside over large campus communities where students, professors and staff study and live. By noon Monday, more than 8,500 people had signed a Change.org petition asking the University of Washington’s president “to close the campus to prevent the spreading of this virus.” The petition cited the close proximity of campus community members as a factor that could accelerate the spread of the virus.
On Monday morning, the university’s Provost Mark A. Richards and Vice Provost Philip J. Reid sent an email addressed to colleagues saying that the school is monitoring the situation and has concluded that since “the number of people in Washington with confirmed infection is low,” instructional changes should be minimal. “Instructors are encouraged to continue the normal course of instruction,” the administrators wrote. “This is an evolving situation, both in Washington and globally, so circumstances could change rapidly.”
The e-mail encouraged professors to accommodate students who choose to stay home to prevent spreading instruction. “Treat the student as if they were experiencing a health issue that keeps them from attending class,” they wrote. “No doctor’s note is needed.”
If there eventually are closures, the administrators wrote, professors should be able to continue teaching online.
Seattle Times staff reporter Evan Bush contributed to this story.