All public and private schools in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties must close for six weeks, through April 24 — a sweeping response to a COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened hundreds and killed dozens statewide.
School districts in the rest of the state are being told to prepare for a state-wide closure in the upcoming days.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced the unprecedented closures at a news conference March 12, in Olympia, following a ban of events involving more than 25o people in those same counties.
“During times of uncertainty and risk, we all have to make tough decisions,” Inslee said. “This is one of them.”
He also advised all college campuses should prepare for potential closures as well.
The virus has hit the Seattle metro area, the most populated region in the Pacific Northwest, harder than anywhere in the United States.
At least 30 people in Washington have died after contracting the disease, with many deaths linked to the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland. Hundreds have been infected.
Under the order, classes must cease no later than March 17.
The decision will have a massive ripple effect on the region: students, parents, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, child care workers, coaches and their families.
Inslee said he spoke with superintendents from all three counties to create contingent plans to keep providing meals and shelter for low-income and homeless students. He said the state is also speaking with nonprofits to help provide meals to neighborhoods.
“We know that districts vary widely in their capabilities to provide these tele-education systems,” Inslee said. “So schools should not be providing online services unless they prove effective.”
He also said superintendents should provide child care for no cost to medical care employees.
“Now is a time for us to come together, and I encourage local education associations to work with their educators as much as possible to ensure the health of students and staff,” Inslee said.
While the proclamation is only for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, Inslee said he may include other counties in the future and districts should start making plans.
“I trust the districts in the rest of the state will have conversations with their communities to be ready,” he said.
OSPI supporting school districts
The Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said schools remained a safe place and rates of COVID-19 in children are low, but consistently changing situations have led to the closures. Teens and children may never be symptomatic, he said, but they can spread the virus to grandparents and vulnerable family members.
The three counties include more than 600,000 students, nearly half of the student population in the state.
Reykdal said he expects schools to start within a month, but that could change.
Attendance numbers in the three counties show an 82 percent increase in absences during the outbreak, Reykdal said. Staff attendance is also down, and many bus drivers and substitute teachers are over the age of 60 and are not attending work.
“The outbreak continues to expand … you’ve seen those numbers and seen where they are located,” Reykdal said. “I want to say to folks who keep thinking this is like the flu … we don’t have a vaccination for this and that’s quite a way out.”
Reykdal also said this will give school leaders a chance to prepare for this upcoming fall if COVID-19 rises again with the usual flu and cold season.
Reykdal also called out local labor unions to gather and help prepare districts and to work with district leaders for teachers’ issues.
“We are going to keep sending money to our school districts,” Reykdal said. “It will still include transportation and supporting individuals. This will take an enormous economic impact on our state and our nation. Our hourly workers are challenged … we are working to try to figure out strategies to keep compensation flowing. And every single family who needs a meal can come to our schools. If you are a working family and you find yourself in a difficult situation, there is not going to be a long line to get a nutritious breakfast or lunch for your children.”
High school seniors and their parents will need to be in contact with their high schools for graduation requirements, Reykdal said. State testing will be suspended statewide most likely. Reykdal said there is no meaningful way to test students while classes are out.
“We haven’t seen this in the state of Washington or the United States in over 100 years,” Reykdal said. “There are nervous and worried families, and we are working really hard in partnership to find answers to those questions and to maximize support for families. We are a visible observation for the rest of the country, which is why we are taking broad steps with our schools.”
Not an ordinary flu
This week, in his ban of public events, Inslee warned of the dangers of the new coronavirus. Since spreading beyond the borders of China, the number of COVID-19 infections has grown with exponential speed.
“This is not just your ordinary flu,” the governor said at a March 11 news conference in Seattle. “This demands a response consistent with the nature of the threat.”
Fallout from the virus is projected to get worse.
Inslee hosted his followup press conference March 12 in a new venue in Olympia to meet social distancing standards meant to curb the outbreak.
Eastside school districts
Many school districts got ahead of the governor’s official proclamation, announcing closures soon after Inslee held a March 11 discussion with school superintendents.
Northshore School District (NSD) was the first to cancel school district-wide on March 4. The district has transitioned to online learning during the closures.
“Every step we’ve taken over the past couple of weeks has been taken only after thoughtful consideration and deep discussions with many who are invested in both the education and well-being of our children,” NSD Superintendent Michelle Reid said in a March 4 message to families. “I have also been working closely with our district leadership, school board, educators, labor groups, families, health departments, peer school districts and elected officials to plan for what the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] suggested may be a required change from our daily routines.”
Lake Washington School District (LWSD) had announced closure within hours of Seattle Public Schools announcing its closure on March 11.
LWSD also announced that child care would be available during school hours for families who are not able to remain home or serve in critical community roles such as health care and first responders. In addition, meals will be available for students at school sites. The district will also have educational resources with supports available for at-home learning.
Bellevue School District (BSD) followed quickly behind, and other school districts continued to announce closures throughout the day and into March 12.
In a press release, the district wrote, “Many of our staff fall into the categories designated by Public Health – Seattle & King County as being at higher risk…In addition, we have many of our educators and staff who have been conflicted with serving our students and ensuring they are safe by taking care of their own health and their families’ health. Surrounding districts, including the Seattle Public Schools and Lake Washington Schools, have begun making decisions to close. Many of our staff have children who attend schools in those districts, and we expect those closures to further reduce staff in our schools.”
Mercer Island School District (MISD), Issaquah School District (ISD) and Snoqualmie Valley School District (SVSD) announced their closures starting March 13.
Like BSD, MISD stated in a press release announcing its closure that neighboring district closures were also affecting its staff.
“We are not currently planning to replace or supplant core instruction with online learning but rather will provide supplemental activities that are designed to provide students and parents with opportunities to extend learning beyond the classroom,” the release states.
Following Inslee’s order, ISD Superintendent Ron Thiele posted a message to the community on the district website.
He wrote that while the district closure begins March 13, all school offices will be open regular hours through March 17 to allow for parents and students to retrieve personal items or medications as needed while schools are closed, Thiele wrote. Staff are expected to report to work at their regularly scheduled time until further notice.
“We care deeply, and we are assessing what options we have to best provide child care, nutritious meals, emergency learning resources, and other vital services during the closure,” he wrote. “Our goal is to reduce the negative impacts to students and families as much as possible.”
District staff are working on how to implement and adjusting these plans, Thiele wrote.
SVSD also posted a message to its community regarding the long-term closure.
“We recognize this closure creates many challenges and our goal is to continue supporting our families and community during this time, to the best of our ability,” the message reads. “Our schools play an important role, not only in the education of our students, but also in the health and safety of the Snoqualmie Valley.”
District officials will be spending next week finalizing plans and putting systems in place to support students, staff and the community, the message reads.
Reporters Caleb Hutton, Julia-Grace Sanders, Zachariah Bryan and Madison Miller and editor Danielle Chastaine contributed to this report.