At a news conference on Wednesday morning, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee advised school districts to begin contingency planning over the next few days in case they are ordered to close.

The announcement came as part of Inslee’s restrictions on gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, the state’s most drastic step in its effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

He added that he will be speaking to school superintendents in the three counties.

“We are giving intense thought in what we can do in terms of our children,” he said.

Before Wednesday, district leaders and county health officials had been the ones making calls on whether to close schools as a precaution.

State education officials began communicating with school districts late last month, asking them to plan for closures. A few, including the Northshore School District, have shut all their schools for at least one day.

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Schools are a critical lifeline for many students, especially children from low-income homes, those who are homeless and those with disabilities. Families rely on schools for hot meals – sometimes three a day – care before and after school, and in some cases, basic medical care from school nurses or medical professionals at clinics on school grounds.

These services are particularly important in school districts that serve a high percentage of children from families with limited means, such as Seattle Public Schools, where roughly 32% of students are low-income. Nearly 4% of SPS students are homeless, and just over 15% have a disability, according to the most recent state data. SPS announced a two-week closure Thursday.

Inslee said schools should expect more guidance in the coming days.

State schools chief Chris Reykdal said Tuesday evening said his department was working through a lot of unknown factors, including whether federal funding for schools would flow in the event of longer closures.

He said he is expecting an answer from the U.S. Department of Education on that issue soon.

In Pierce County, more than 78% of students in the Franklin Pierce School District qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for being low-income. Roughly 75% of students in Skykomish and Tukwila school districts in King County are low-income. And in Snohomish County, more than 55% of students are low-income in the Sultan School District.

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Several charter schools also have high percentages of low-income students, including Rainier Prep Charter School and Summit Olympus.

Inslee said that in figuring out how schools should proceed, his office is paying close attention to emerging research on SARS-CoV-2 in children and called attention to new studies that suggest children are “relatively free of disease associated with this.”

He went on to say: “The best science tells us they still have the capability of transmitting the disease to other people they come into contact with.”

So far, the scientific literature on both infection and transmission of the novel coronavirus in children is thin. A recent unpublished study hints that children are just as likely as adults to be infected if they come into contact with someone with the virus.

Children in this study and other recent research are mostly spared from the worst symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The extent to which children are important vectors for transmitting the virus as they are for other conditions such as influenza, is also unclear.

Inslee touched on the concerns about the hardship that widespread closures would mean for working parents and low-income families.

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“We don’t want to have nurses having to leave” their jobs treating people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic because they don’t have childcare, he said. In what was likely a reference to Northshore, he added that a district north of Seattle has seen success in closing and providing services for students.

But that district of 24,000 still faces challenges reaching everyone with the online learning and meals it is providing during its two-week closure.

Children who need supervision or guidance from adults to complete coursework online may not be able to get all that much learning done if both their parents are working. One parent of a six-year-old child who has autism told The Seattle Times on Monday that his son only got about two or three hours of learning time because he had to take work calls. 

Because it can be tricky to reach everyone, the state education department cautioned districts, telling them to refrain from offering alternative learning services during closures. 

“You can get mixed results” with that approach said Reykdal, the state schools chief. 

The district’s food and nutrition department director also noted Tuesday that the meals prepared during the closure were reaching only a small fraction of students. 

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On Tuesday, about 160 meals were picked up or delivered in Northshore, even though about 3,500 students there qualify for free or discounted lunch. District officials are trying to communicate about the meals more broadly and in more languages to get the word out.

The Puget Sound Educational Service District, a regional group that serves 35 school districts, has been working with the state superintendent’s office and individual counties to identify solutions for child care, according to a spokeswoman.

“Solutions will vary by community,” said Jessica De Barros in an email. “A key consideration is that many parents are employees of the health care workforce. We are actively working on solutions and expect guidelines to come soon from the governor and (state superintendent’s office).”

All students in the Franklin Pierce School District, where about 78% of students are low-income, are eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch at school. Karen Brown, nutrition services director for the district, said that in light of Inslee’s Wednesday morning announcement, the district is beginning conversations about how to provide food to students if schools close.

“We just started this conversation about three hours ago,” she said on Wednesday afternoon. “I am thinking of making it a ‘drive up [or] walk up’ meal service where the kids would pick up a meal from the outside of the school and take it with them.  This reduces the exposure to staff and other families.”

More on the coronavirus outbreaks

Staff writer Neal Morton contributed reporting.