Update, Feb. 28, 6:30 p.m.
The Snohomish County public health department announced Friday afternoon that the school staffer’s family member tested negative for the new coronavirus. The staffer and the family member have both been taken out of quarantine.
Despite advice from public health officials, administrators in Northshore School District closed Bothell High School Thursday amid fears of the new coronavirus.
The district decided at 9 p.m. Thursday to close the school on Friday as well.
Administrators made the initial decision after learning an employee had traveled internationally with a family member who fell ill earlier this week and is being tested for the virus, according to a letter Superintendent Michelle Reid emailed families just before 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Both the staffer and the family member are now quarantined for 14 days, according to the letter. The employee is not being tested for the virus.
In a phone interview, Reid said she consulted with three different health agencies and a University of Washington School of Global Health professor. Public Health – Seattle & King County, she said, told her the danger to students and staff was low. That risk was too much for her, so she decided to close school Thursday.
The closure allowed time for the entire campus to be disinfected “as a preventive measure,” Reid’s letter said. Classes were expected to resume Friday, the letter stated, but on Thursday night, Lisa Youngblood Hall, the district’s director of communications, emailed a notice that crews had made it through just “a large portion of the school” on Thursday and test results on the employee’s family member weren’t back yet.
Closing the school another day, she wrote, “will provide us an opportunity to complete the cleaning and hopefully receive the results of the test.”
All Friday evening events on the campus were canceled, and a decision on weekend activities would be made “as soon as possible” on Friday, Youngblood Hall wrote.
Several of Northshore’s neighboring districts, including Seattle Public Schools, said they would wait for guidance from health officials before deciding to close a school, and were developing plans in case widespread closures become necessary.
Shoreline also took precautions. On Thursday afternoon, Shoreline Public Schools emailed families to say that the district had three staff members “monitoring their health at home.” One had traveled to Southeast Asia; the other two had been in a meeting led by someone with a family member who was quarantined but not confirmed to have the virus. None of the Shoreline staffers, the note said, was confirmed to have been exposed to the virus, and none reported its symptoms.
“We have taken the extra step of asking these staff members to work from home out of an abundance of caution in an effort to do our best to protect the students and staff of Shoreline Public Schools with the information currently available,” the email stated.
Reid’s Wednesday letter shared a similar sentiment. “These steps are being taken out of an abundance of caution,” Reid wrote. “In these unusual circumstances as the national picture continues to evolve — and with the strong presence of social media — I know it is easy to begin speculating and questioning. I ask for your patience and your respectful grace for our staff member, their family, and our school community.”
Closing schools if no student or school employee has a confirmed case of COVID-19 isn’t recommended by Public Health – Seattle & King County or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), public health said in a statement after the Bothell closure was announced.
“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,” the statement said. “And the school knows its community best and is in charge of making decisions about the school.” The CDC says fewer children than adults have been diagnosed with the virus, and that initial reports from China suggest the virus is milder for young people.
Northshore officials were aware of this guidance, Reid wrote in her letter to families, but decided to close the school anyway “as we await the aforementioned test results.”
Reid later said she stood by her call. “I think what people appreciate is not carrying on as business as usual when it isn’t business as usual,” Reid said.
If faced with the same scenario and facts again, she said, she would do the same thing. “I’m comfortable with the decision.”
Ultimately, the decision to close schools rests with school districts, Public Health spokesperson Hilary Karasz wrote in an email, adding that her office is working to make sure schools are prepared “in the event of a pandemic.”
The first thing school districts should do when facing something like a viral outbreak is to lean on health agencies that are trained to deal with such situations, said Linda Venczel, an epidemiologist and director of global health security at Seattle-based health nonprofit PATH.
Seattle Public Schools are keeping families and staff updated via the district’s website, emails, text messages and phone calls, said SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson. The district is also urging staff, students and their families to take the same precautions advised during every flu season: Wash your hands; don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; stay home when sick; and cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your inner elbow when sneezing or coughing.
Bellevue School District, which has a large Chinese student population, has been sending advice and information to families about the virus since Jan. 24. That has included guidance from the state Department of Health about when to stay home from school and information for anyone who has traveled to China, said district spokesman Michael May.
The district has also warned against discrimination related to the virus: “When it comes to infectious disease, country of origin does not mean that people with an association to that area are ill or contagious.”
If an outbreak required several schools or the whole district to close, Bellevue may use online learning to continue some services, since the district assigns laptops to all middle and high school students. But for school districts without that option, such as Tacoma, shut means shut.
“We would have no way to continue educational operations if the district were closed,” said Tacoma School District spokesman Dan Voelpel.
The coronavirus, which has been named SARS-CoV-2, was detected in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in the Central China province of Hubei. Since people in Wuhan began falling ill with the disease the virus causes, COVID-19 in December, about 82,000 people globally have been sickened and more than 2,800 have died.
Most of the illnesses and deaths have occurred in China, but — despite unprecedented measures to quarantine millions of people and restrict international travel — the virus has been spreading across the globe, reaching 50 countries on every continent except Antarctica.
At least 15 people have tested positive for the virus in the U.S. An additional 45 people who have been flown back from other countries to the U.S. by the State Department have also tested positive for the virus.
The CDC warned this week that Americans should prepare themselves for the virus to begin circulating in the U.S., saying it’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”
The first person in the U.S. confirmed to have COVID-19 was a 35-year-old Snohomish County man who was diagnosed in January. He spent several weeks in a temporary isolation unit at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett before being discharged on an undisclosed date around the end of January. He was then quarantined and monitored by public health workers at home until last week, when he was declared fully recovered and free to go about his daily activities.