It’s been a mad dash for everyone.
By Tuesday, the first day of Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate to close K-12 schools statewide, school districts still grappled with their new challenge: how to carry on serving their students’ basic needs without holding a school day.
Even in places like Seattle Public Schools, whose closure announcement predated the governor’s six-week order to shut down, school employees had only a matter of hours to respond before their buildings locked indefinitely.
“There was an immediate run on the copier” the day Seattle Public Schools announced it would close, said Gerrit Kischner, the principal of Genesee Hill Elementary School in West Seattle. “And lots of stuffing of books into backpacks.”
Because schools do much more than instruct, state education chief Chris Reykdal said last week that he expected all school districts to step up and provide three basic services to families: food, child care for the most vulnerable and, eventually, provide some version of learning at a distance.
“This is not a vacation,” said Reykdal.
This week, Kischner said he was trying to pick up the pieces. He said he still couldn’t answer some questions from parents, like where to go for child care. In the last few weeks, he’d spent nearly all of the $3,500 allotted to his school from an outside fund intended for basic family needs, like groceries. (The fund was created by the nonprofit Alliance for Education and Amazon, which provides funding for Education Lab).
The school’s parent-teacher association has tried to fill in where the school can’t, raising money and connecting families with child care, he said.
Reykdal asked parents to be patient as schools try to respond to a crisis they never thought they would face. For some districts that haven’t offered or coordinated these services before, it will take longer. By the end of next week, he said the state Education Department will prepare a report to the governor about how all districts are responding.
So far, dozens of districts have already stepped up with their own plans, with nonprofits and PTAs helping to fill the gaps where they exist. Here’s some of what is happening so far.
With nearly half of all public school students receiving free or reduced-price lunch from school, access to food during the closure quickly became one of the biggest concerns.
At Seattle Public Schools, which closed before the governor’s orders, weekday lunch service began Monday at more than two dozen schools. To ensure the social distancing that medical professionals say is key to containing community spread of COVID-19, the lunches are to-go, and students aren’t allowed to eat inside the buildings. Volunteers are also showing up and helping.
Some of these sites, like Denny International Middle School, have also handed out books and other learning resources.
A community organization called WA-BLOC, based in Southeast Seattle, started offering breakfast in the mornings.
Some districts like Northshore are delivering the food straight to students, anticipating that students or families might have a hard time making it to food sites. Initially, the 24,000-student district saw low response rates. The first few days it offered meals, most of which were pre-ordered online, only a couple hundred requests came in each day. But with some more outreach, the district saw the number jump to more than 1,000 on Monday.
While dozens of companies encouraged their workers to complete work from home over the last week, that hasn’t been a luxury afforded to everyone — especially not to health care workers helping diagnose and treat the illness caused by COVID-19. Inslee requested that districts provide care for their children.
This is likely the trickiest thing for districts to figure out. While many school districts are equipped with their own preschool or day care facilities, it would be hard to accommodate every working family who needs child care.
So districts like Spokane are starting small, offering only a limited number of sites with child care.
In the Seattle area, organizations like the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club and Champions are stepping in to help. High school students are offering babysitting services at a sliding scale. And on the internet, parents are organizing Facebook groups for child care swaps.
Because of federal laws governing equitable access to education, school districts have wrestled with how to offer online instruction without leaving any students out. After just one week of digital learning, the Northshore paused its program because it couldn’t find a way around those restrictions.
Seattle Public Schools and Tacoma School District have both said they’re not offering online learning because of those equity issues. But in some places, like Kischner’s Genesee Hill, teachers are doing small-scale experiments with just one or two classes to see if they could pull off a completely digital program, if the time comes.
The state education department is expected to provide more guidance on how school districts should approach this issue in the next week. In the interim, some school districts have put together long lists of online learning programs that families can choose to use.