On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee canceled school for over a month.
The mandatory closure, which will take effect in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties starting March 17, was Inslee’s latest step in his fight to contain the novel coronavirus, which as of late Thursday had killed 31 and infected 457 in Washington state.
Inslee used an executive order to shutter K-12 public and private schools in those counties through April 24. Schools could reopen by that following Monday, April 27, but the closure could last longer, depending on the outbreak, officials said.
“Our [school] systems need to be prepared for a potentially longer closure in the near term and [without a vaccine] we have to be prepared that this is back in the fall or still with us in the fall,” said state schools chief Chris Reykdal.
The school announcement touched off a wave of other changes, efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus that will change the rhythm of daily life in the Puget Sound region. The changes came on the heels of the illness’s increasing medical toll: As of Thursday afternoon, King County had 270 confirmed cases, including 27 deaths.
At least 25 of the deceased were associated with nursing homes and other residential or care communities.
Public Health – Seattle & King County said it expects the number of cases to double every five to seven days as the disease spreads, though the agency hopes residents will help slow its progress through social distancing measures and by staying home when sick.
As the number of confirmed cases grew, though, so did the number of people tested for the illness locally. UW Medicine’s lab testing for COVID-19 pushed through 1,300 tests Tuesday and could be doing 4,000 a day by next week.
Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the Seattle Public Library would close all of its locations; Seattle Parks and Recreation will close all community centers, pools, environmental learning centers and other recreation facilities. In its announcement, the city estimated that keeping all of these spaces and services open could spike the number of people infected with COVID-19 all the way up to 25,000.
Another weapon in the fight against the spread of coronavirus: In order to limit hand-to-hand interactions, fare enforcement officers will stop checking passengers on Sound Transit trains and King County Metro buses.
The school closures could require fundamental changes to how teaching and learning works in Washington state, the officials said. Reykdal asked districts to view it as a chance to figure out how to deliver instruction from a distance.
Inslee encouraged districts that are capable of teaching online in the coming weeks to do so, but said he realized not everyone was in a position to offer that equitably. The order came one day after Inslee put all districts on notice of potential closure. By Wednesday, four large districts in King County — Seattle, Bellevue, Northshore and Lake Washington — had already planned to shutter.
Inslee acknowledged that the mandated closures would burden many families, especially those trying to find and afford child care. He has asked superintendents to provide child care at no cost for families that work in the medical field or first responders. He also said he was confident schools would be able to continue administering social services, such as food assistance, through the closure.
“There’s going to be questions about when we actually can fully get back,” Inslee said. “And so this is going to be really hard on families and we shouldn’t diminish that.”
Inslee’s order didn’t include universities, but Inslee put them — and other school districts across Washington — on notice, too.
There are wide-ranging implications: Students will experience a drastic disruption to their lives, whether through instruction or the sudden lack of nutrition, health and special-education services. Parents will lose the place their kids go during the day while they work. And hourly workers may be out of a paycheck. Neither official knew whether or how hourly workers would be paid.
There are also sweeping systemic changes. Standardized tests, which typically start each spring, likely will be suspended — possibly statewide. During the closure, Reykdal, said money will continue to flow through schools, and teachers will be paid.
Across the three counties, nearly 563,600 students attend public or charter schools. Roughly 216,700 of them qualify for subsidized meals, leaving many of the 43 school districts there scrambling to plan for feeding children during an extended closure.
Philanthropic and service groups, Inslee said, may help with services like distributing boxed meals — which will be available to everyone who asks. This effort may also include the Washington National Guard, he added.
“Every single family who needs a meal can come to our schools as we build this out over the next week,” Reykdal said. “There is not going to be a long line or a bunch of paperwork.”
As the news reached high-poverty districts such as Federal Way, school employees were consumed by worries for their students who rely on school for meals and other necessities.
“Telling them today that this will get suddenly get taken away from you, for who knows how long — it is something I hope I never have to do again,” said Daniel Harada, a fifth-grade teacher at Wildwood Elementary in Federal Way.
Students with disabilities and those who are homeless also are likely to bear the brunt of long periods without schools open. For many students who don’t have stable housing arrangements, school can be the one constant in their lives.
About $1 billion in compensation for employees flows through Washington’s schools each month, Reykdal estimated.
Already, Washington received a waiver from the federal government to make it easier to provide meals to students and their families. And the U.S. Department of Education said it would consider temporarily waiving requirements to administer standardized tests to students in districts affected by closures.
As Reykdal announced the closures, he pointed to some realities that changed since the outbreak began. Absenteeism had risen significantly in each of the three counties, he said — by 82% in King County alone, from 6.2% to 11.2% “in a very short period of time.”
Then, there’s the staffing question. Many bus drivers and substitute teachers — groups of school staff who disproportionately are older than 60 — also stopped showing up to work, Reykdal said, making it “nearly impossible” for schools to maintain business as usual.
Reykdal added that 1 in every 6 teachers in Washington are over the age of 60, which might have prompted school districts to close on their own.
As for seniors in high school, Reykdal said his office will focus on keeping them on track to graduation.
“Sorry, seniors, there might still be some work for you to do,” he said.
Under state law, public school districts must offer a minimum average of 1,080 instructional hours to high school students and 1,000 hours to all other grades. The state education department will waive days that school districts can’t make up past June 19.
In Franklin Pierce School District, nutritional services director Karen Brown quickly realized her plan to offer families a drive-up food service on days when school is closed would not work: more than 60% of students take the bus and can’t travel to school on their own.
Her new plan: deliver food straight to Franklin Pierce students.
“We will make the food and then put it on the buses,” she said, adding that students will get bagged breakfast and lunch each day. “We will take it to our highest populated areas, like apartment complexes or neighborhoods where a lot of our kids live.”
Federal Way Public Schools, which will close on March 16, one day before the mandated closure, will offer meals at select schools. It will also mail “learning packets” to students’ homes.
Starting Monday, Seattle Public Schools will offer lunch at 25 different school sites. “Our staff has been in deep planning and ongoing discussions every day as the coronavirus crisis has evolved, so we’ve already got a solid plan in place,” superintendent Denise Juneau said in a statement. “This is an extraordinary time and it calls for extraordinary measures.”
Montgomery Robertson, a 14-year-old freshman at Raisbeck Aviation High School in the Highline School District, was in her sixth period robotics class when she saw that school would be shutting down.
She was excited, but worried she would get bored and fall behind on the path to graduation. “It kind of felt like the last day of school, but it was more sudden,” she said. “I hope we have online classes just so that we can learn and get work done and earn our credits for this semester.”
In Shoreline, mother Lindsey Bain-McCorkle already struggled to balance working from home and taking care of a 2½-year-old sent home when the private King’s Schools closed its child care starting Tuesday. Now, her second-grader who attends school in Edmonds will stay home, too.
“I go back and forth between just a total blank mind — I don’t even know what to think — and then kind of just feel like laughing hysterically, because this is 10 times worse than a snow day,” Bain-McCorkle said after learning of the governor’s order.
“I don’t disagree with what they’re doing, and why schools have to close,” she said. “It’s just a lot coming very quickly.”