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School district north of Seattle closes over virus concerns

by Associated Press
| March 5, 2020 8:05 AM

SEATTLE (AP) — A school district north of Seattle with 22,000 students will close for up to two weeks because of coronavirus concerns, and parents in other districts are pressing officials to follow suit.

All of the schools in the Northshore School District will be closed for up to two weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect vulnerable staff members, the district's superintendent said Wednesday evening in a letter to parents. They plan to teach students online.

There have been at least 39 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Seattle area. Ten people have died. Vice President Mike Pence plans to meet Thursday with Inslee and other state officials about the response to the virus during a visit to the state.

Northshore School District superintendent Michelle Reid said all of the 26 schools in the district will be shuttered while officials monitor the situation and listen to the health department for more recommendations.

Reid said she made the decision after learning of more people in the region testing positive, including a parent volunteer at Woodmoore Elementary School who tested positive for COVID-19.

“We are receiving numerous calls and emails from parents and staff who are self-quarantining or are choosing to keep their students home. Today, our absentee rate for students districtwide was 20 percent," Reid said.

Of the 10 new King County cases announced Wednesday, nine were associated with a Kirkland nursing home that has seen the bulk of the illnesses and deaths, including a woman in her 90s who died Tuesday.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, public health officer in Seattle and King County, said two doctors had been deployed to Life Center in Kirkland to help staff during the “unprecedented outbreak” in the region.

“This is a very stressful situation for the families of the residents of the center,” he told reporters. “We have a CDC team that has been on site ... at Life Care providing infection control guidance.”

Seattle area schools were mulling teaching students online in the event of prolonged closures over health concerns. The schools took the steps after researchers said the virus that causes the disease called COVID-19 may have been circulating for weeks undetected in the state. Experts said more cases will probably be reported.

Some students and parents started petitions asking districts to close their schools.

Ken Finlayson said his 14-year-old son started a petition asking the Lake Washington School District to close their schools, which are located in Kirkland and near the nursing home that’s been the epicenter of the outbreak. By early Thursday, more than 18,500 people had signed the petition.

State and regional health officials have not recommended closing schools. They say children are unlikely to get very sick if they get COVID-19.

But Finlayson said the children may bring the virus home to people who are vulnerable, including infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

“My wife is severely disabled – she’s a non-verbal quadriplegic,” he said. “He may bring the virus home to his mother, who may die.”

Finlayson said if school officials want to ensure all students have equal access to learning, they could open a few labs or classrooms for those students, while holding online classes.

More than 20 schools in the Puget Sound area have closed for at least a day for cleaning prompted by coronavirus concerns, according to the Washington superintendent of public instruction.

Renton school officials announced Tuesday that Hazen High School would close for the rest of the week after a student tested positive for coronavirus. The school will be closed “as they work to determine who, if anybody, came in contact with the ill student to ensure it is safe for students and staff to return to school,” the district said on the school's website. The student was home recovering.

Seattle Public Schools has so far said the district would not close, but it was monitoring the situation.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said businesses were encouraged to implement telecommuting and that the county would use the practice with some workers for the next three weeks. He acknowledged. however, that many government workers such as police and bus drivers don't have that option.

He also said community groups should avoid creating large gatherings of more than 10 people. “The main message is, if you don’t have to be in close contact with others – 6 feet – don’t be,” Duchin said.

Constantine said Wednesday that officials had purchased an 85-bed hotel in suburban Kent, Washington, to house patients for recovery and isolation due to COVID-19.

Inslee said that for now, he was deferring to the judgment of organizations on whether large gatherings or events should be canceled.