Five miles south of the Life Care Center of Kirkland, where the coronavirus outbreak has killed residents and sown fear, a prestigious private school is going remote.

Starting next week, Eastside Preparatory School, which charges $37,900 a year for tuition, will conduct its classes online for nearly a month “as a preventative measure to prioritize the health and safety of students,” according to a statement from Terry Macaluso, who heads the school.

The school already has tech-friendly features: Students are required to purchase a $2,267 tablet PC and submit some assignments online, one parent said.

Private schools can make quick decisions like this. But in public schools, education officials and advocates say the move can run the risk of being inequitable, because students have different learning and connectivity needs.

Still, some are hatching plans to try to make it work. On Wednesday night, Northshore School District announced all schools would be closed March 5 through 14, but that instruction would resume online on Monday. The decision came one day after the district shut down to train teachers on distance learning. And at the Bellevue School District, which provides laptops to all middle and high school students, officials are also developing plans for online learning.

Public schools serve a wide cross-section of students, and are governed by laws that require equitable access to education. That means making remote learning work for students with disabilities and those living in poverty, who may not have reliable access to computers or the internet outside school.

Advertising

For that reason, many public school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, won’t or can’t take this route — even when faced with the possibility of shutting schools down for weeks to prevent the spread of the virus.

The state education department is urging school districts to proceed with caution as they plan closures. If they try to go all-digital without making sure every one of their students can adequately learn on digital platforms, “they would run into civil rights issues,” said Rhett Nelson, director of alternative learning programs for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Instead, state officials are encouraging districts to make up the lost instructional time later.

Already, Northshore families are trying to fill in the gaps: organizing a food pantry for students who depend on school for their meals, fundraising for educational expenses and helping each other with childcare.

Students with disabilities

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public schools must offer educational accommodations for students with disabilities. District employees and parents outline the accommodations and academic goals for each student in legally binding documents known as Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs.

Carrie Mizenko imagined that if the Northshore School District went web-only, it would be hard to meet the terms of her 6-year-old son’s IEP.

Another wrinkle: Online-only schooling would, in many cases, require a parent to remain home. That’s true for Dizenko.

Advertising

One of her son’s IEP goals is to work on his ability to concentrate. To make sure he stays on track, remote learning would require adult supervision that she and her husband, who both work full-time, already struggle to provide when school is canceled for just one day, she said.

Earlier this week, when her son stayed home because of Northshore’s teacher training, she said she darted back and forth between home and work so her husband could get on Skype calls.

“It was quite challenging,” said Mizenko.

When Northshore announced the closure, the district said it was ready — it made sure each student had a device and a web connection. “Instructional staff who provide services to our students with disabilities will make every effort to deliver” the services IEPs demand, superintendent Michelle Reid said in a statement. When schools resume, IEP teams will meet and “determine if additional services are needed.”

Beyond e-learning, those concerns about child care during extended closures are looming large for many other working parents, especially those who don’t have the option of working from home.

During the weeklong teachers strike in Tacoma two years ago, Marcie Germani, a physical therapist at a nursing facility, had to ask her mom to fly in from St. Louis to watch her kids.

“I work 9:30 to 2:30, so as soon as I see that bus pull away, I’m off,” she said.

Advertising

If schools are closed for that long again, Germani said she’ll have to consider the expense of hiring a sitter. Or try out leaving her 9- and 11-year-old kids at home alone.

Ben Batstone has a first-grade daughter who attends Frank Love Elementary, which has been closed since Monday. He’s struggled to sort out child care, he said, and he and other Northshore parents are concerned about the equity of long-term school closures.

Community members are rallying to find ways to support families and school staff in need. At Frank Love, the parent-teacher association runs a food pantry and will potentially organize snack drop-offs while the school is closed, Batstone said.

In Facebook groups, parents offered to watch each other’s children, or volunteer their teenagers as babysitters. And the Northshore Schools Foundation, an independent nonprofit that raises money for the schools there, launched an emergency fundraising campaign on Thursday to pay for cleaning, staff training and technology for students, among other things.

“It’s going to be a little scary for the next few weeks,” Batstone said. “As a family, we’re going to just do the best that we can at every step.”

Tech access

Online learning and long-term closures also pose a concern for students without reliable access to the internet outside of school, including those who are homeless. Seattle schools will be encouraging teachers to prepare physical packets students can complete at home should they miss school for a long time, a district spokesman said.

Only about 58% of school districts in Washington state assign laptops to students in one or more grades, according to a survey from the state education department.

Advertising

Both Northshore and Bellevue say they have plans to distribute laptops and WiFi hotspots to kids who don’t have them.

On Thursday, Chris Davis requested an iPad for his daughter Zoe, a first-grader at Woodin Elementary in the Northshore School District. He “vastly prefers” distance learning over making up lost time at the end of the school year, he said, and hopes to have the device in hand soon so Zoe can continue her schoolwork.

Until then, he’s working from home and keeping Zoe entertained. “This morning she watched the Wizard of Oz, and she’s been playing outside,” he said. (Davis a former employee of The Seattle Times).

But even with the right equipment, for homeless students, the other consequences of school closures would make learning hard. Many receive free lunch and breakfast every day. When school closes unexpectedly, students with unstable housing don’t only lose a place to learn — they could also go hungry.

Their other places of refuge, including the Boys and Girls Club, which offers food and academic support, also close down when schools aren’t operating.

“It’s a snowball effect,” said Tim Mottis, president of the club in Bellevue.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Staff writer Hannah Furfaro contributed reporting.

Correction: Due to a technical glitch, a previous version of this story spelled Carrie Mizenko’s last name incorrectly as Dizenko.