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Education

Why a 13-year-old decided to petition the Lake Washington district to close schools

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photo courtesy of Ken Finlayson
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Michael Finlayson said his mom Tania's health was the motivation for writing a petition to ask the Lake Washington School District to close schools. His mother has severe cerebral palsy.

UPDATE, March 6, 2:55 pm: Adds that Lake Washington Superintendent Jane Stavem has announced her resignation as she takes a new position in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The east side of Lake Washington is where the state has seen a number of novel coronavirus cases, including deaths. Two school districts there are taking different approaches to the outbreak.

Last Sunday morning, Michael Finlayson woke up and decided to take action. The 13-year-old eighth-grader atttends Kamiakin Middle School in the Lake Washington School District.

“The previous day, there had been the first death in our state — actually, in the U.S. — from the coronavirus,” Finlayson said. “After closer inspection, I noticed it was at Evergreen hospital, which I live less than half a mile away from.”

And there was something else on his mind. His mom, Tania, has severe cerebral palsy. She's nonverbal and is a quadriplegic.

“She’s at great risk because when she gets a cold, she holds onto it for months,” he said. “If she got it, it could almost be fatal to her and my grandma, who I see a lot.”

So he got online and wrote a petition. He urged the Lake Washington district to close schools. It's a big district with more than 30,000 students.

In his petition, Michael tried to make it clear this wasn't about a kid trying to get out of school. He wrote that even if the virus is mild for children, it can be very serious for medically vulnerable people they live with. He showed it to his parents, and his dad Ken said they gave their OK.

“We’re supporting him in his activism as long as he’s professional about it and respectful to everybody, and so far he’s been doing a great job, I think,” Ken Finlayson said.

Michael thought maybe he'd get at most 100 signatures. Instead he's gotten more than 22,000. That reflects concerns in the community that schools there are particularly vulnerable, because of the cases stemming from the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland.

But so far, Lake Washington School District has kept schools open on the recommendation of Public Health — Seattle & King County. School district officials declined an interview request, saying that it’s a rapidly changing situation and they’re trying to maintain clear and consistent information.

Late Thursday, the school district said it's taking steps such as canceling volunteer programs and visitations during the school day and canceling or postponing after-school and weekend activities such as athletic competitions and music concerts. In a statement on Friday, the district said Superintendent Jane Stavem will resign to take a position as superintendent in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, effective June 30th. She said the move will allow her to be closer to her extended family.

Patty Hayes is director of Public Health — Seattle & King County.

“We’re in dynamic conversations with schools on a daily basis,” Hayes said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Public Health is not recommending closing schools at this time unless there has been a confirmed case within that school.”

She said children have not been shown to be a high-risk group and if schools close, there are negative impacts for working families.

But delays in making COVID-19 tests available and restrictive criteria for determining who should be tested have drawn criticism from leaders including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. And that means that as schools wait for confirmed cases before closing, there may be other students and staff who are sick but just haven't been tested.

The Northshore School District, which includes Bothell, decided to move more swiftly. That district of more than 22,000 students has announced it's closing all school facilities for up to 14 days and shifting to online learning. That comes in part because of possible coronavirus exposures at some schools, including one school where a parent volunteer tested "presumptively positive" for COVID-19, and because a significant number of staff members are older than 60, one of the higher-risk groups.  Some parents have said it’s a smart move, but others have said it places a hardship on families.

REACTION IN NORTHSHORE

Sandy McCool is a single mom in Bothell who works full time. She has a high-schooler and a first-grader and has set up an informal child care network.

“There’s three of us neighbors and we’ve been taking turns with each other’s kids, but that’s not anything that’s going to be sustainable,” McCool said.

And seeing the kids runs back and forth makes her wonder whether closing the schools will keep kids isolated.

“For me, that’s where the mixed feeling are — these kids are still going to be exposed to this virus whether they’re at school or they’re at home,” McCool said.

But another mother in the Northshore district, who said that she's a pediatric nurse and commented on condition that her name and employer not be used, said Northshore Superintendent Michelle Reid is "making the right decision."

"My son was really sick two weeks ago and now my daughter and myself are on day seven of being quite sick. No testing anywhere, but I am 99.9 percent sure it's (coronavirus) because our symptoms are quite distinct now," the mother wrote in an email. "It's a tad different than the flu, and the symptoms are varying every day. Chests are tight and heavy coughs. We are just bunkered down in our house, haven't been out for weeks now."

She said that while it's true that children are not as affected as older people, "children are still getting sick, and then these kids bring it home to the parents like me, and now I am not able to go to work and look after the kids who are really sick at the hospital. So it is the domino effect." 

LAKE WASHINGTON

In the Lake Washington district where schools have stayed open, the Finlaysons have decided to keep Michael home. And they've limited his contact with friends. Ken Finlayson said Michael asked on Sunday if he could go to a friend's house.

“And at first we were really reluctant until he explained, 'No, we’re going over there to make hand sanitizer,’” he said with a laugh. “At that point, it’s kind of like — OK, I can’t think of a better activity for you to be doing with your friends than making hand sanitizer.”

Michael has continued to do his schoolwork online at home. He's trying to adhere to a regular school day schedule. He is anxious about the possibility of his mom or grandma getting sick and he's trying to manage those worries.

“A big outlet for me is staying on top of things, but also mainly playing piano,” he said. “It’s just something that really relaxes me and eases that anxiety.”

Michael turns 14 this Saturday, and with the outbreak, his parents are still trying to figure out if it makes sense to have a birthday party with friends.