Tens of thousands of school children will be staying home for the foreseeable future as districts across Washington prepare to shut down in an effort to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The decisions by some of the state’s largest school districts — including Seattle Public Schools (SPS), which serves more than 52,000 students — are unprecedented and represent some of the most sweeping public policy measures to curb transmission of the novel coronavirus to date. The closures could leave districts scrambling to serve the roughly 216,700 out of 563,600 students in those counties who depend on school for their meals.

Within hours of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Wednesday announcement to restrict meetings of 250 people or more in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, school districts swiftly responded by declaring large-scale closures, some spanning as long as two weeks. Following Seattle’s announcement, Bellevue, Lake Washington and Shoreline public schools all announced plans to close.

“We have a lot of emergency operations in place and we plan for a lot of different things. A pandemic is not one of them,” SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “This is something none of us ever expected to face as school leaders.”

Some of these decisions run contrary to what public health officials advise: On Wednesday, Public Health – Seattle & King County posted guidance for school districts on its website and urged districts without known COVID-19 cases to stay open. Although several school districts, including Seattle, have known cases, Bellevue School District and others do not.

In his announcement Wednesday, Inslee asked school districts to begin contingency planning in the event they need to close. “We are giving intense thought in what we can do in terms of our children,” he said.

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The guidance put school districts on notice, leaving them to define what, exactly, it means to shut down. They have to weigh not only concerns related instruction — and whether they have the capacity or willingness to try online instruction — but also how to pay teachers, ensure they can feed children whose family incomes qualify them for free or discounted school meals, and provide care for students who typically use before- and after-school childcare services. At SPS, students will have to get to different school sites to access free or reduced price lunch.

Inslee recognized how tricky the calculus can be, especially since closing schools has ripple effects that could keep health care workers who have children from fully fighting the virus.

SPS’ choice to shut down for two weeks followed the district’s earlier move to stay open in an effort to make sure children didn’t suddenly see a loss in services.

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 SPS, where roughly 32% of students are from low-income families. Nearly 4% of SPS students are homeless, and just over 15% have a disability, according to the most recent state data.

As of Wednesday, SPS was still working out the details of how working families would get childcare. Natalie Hirsch, a preschool teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, teaches a half-day program, so many of her families already have childcare plans for the other part of the day. But her class is special education, so those students won’t get their special education services during the closure. “Those services can’t be done remotely, so everything’s been suspended,” she said.

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Hirsch said her school sent some students home with suitcases or rolling backpacks full of food. “It was kind of a scramble.”

And while 50 to 60 SPS sites will open to distribute food Monday, there was no plan to offer food this Thursday or Friday, district officials said.

The impact SPS’ closure will have on employees is also hazy. Although salaried employees are covered, union and state officials said they were uncertain about whether hourly employees such as instructional assistants will get paid during a long-term closure.

But districts serve different types of students and have different levels of resources. So not all closures look the same. For example, Northshore School District went remote Monday. But that district of 24,000 still faces challenges reaching everyone with the online learning and is struggling to provide meals to students during its two-week closure.

Because it can be tricky to reach everyone, the state education department asked districts to refrain from offering alternative learning services if they did ultimately close.

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

Other districts will likely face similar issues on a different scale. 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.

All students in the Franklin Pierce School District 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 announcement, the district began to consider food distribution in the wake of a potential closure.

“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.”

Community organizations are stepping up to fill in the gaps. Child Care Aware of Washington, for example, offers a central database of local providers licensed by the state. That agency has tried to maintain a list of childcare programs that have or will close amid concerns of the novel coronavirus, but spokesperson Marcia Jacobs noted there are more than 3,500 programs across Washington state.

The agency is also reaching out to providers to see who has additional capacity and would be able to provide services for families whose children would normally be in school. She said home-based licensed childcare facilities often have more flexibility in who they can serve.

Families who speak any language can call the nonprofit’s hotline (1-800-446-1114) from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each weekday or search online anytime for childcare options in their area.

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Lorraine Montez, director of marketing and communications for Boys & Girls Club of King County, said the clubs will be open and offer a full day of care for children if parents need to work at home or at their work sites. Hours will vary from location to location but none will exceed 250 people including staff. Current members do not need to pay anything additional. They will offer space to club members first, then to all families in need. For more information go to https://positiveplace.org/clubs/.

They are taking additional measures to keep clubhouses clean and sanitized, Montez said.

Inslee said that in figuring out how schools should proceed in the coming weeks, 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 vectors for transmitting the virus as they are for other conditions such as influenza is also unclear.

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(Anika Varty / The Seattle Times)