The novel coronavirus has brought Washington’s largest school district to a reluctant halt.
For nearly two weeks, as more than 115 other schools across the state announced closures, Seattle Public Schools superintendent Denise Juneau said it was her goal to keep city schools open for as long as possible to avoid cutting off important social services to students.
But in the 24 hours before she decided to close the district’s schools for a minimum of two weeks, the situation had reached a tipping point.
News leaked the night before that Gov. Jay Inslee would be banning large gatherings. Two campuses were ordered to close after an employee tested positive for the virus and another had been exposed. Students planned walk-outs and absences to protest the district’s restrained response. And on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the district abruptly announced the closure, district officials saw teacher absences, which had steadily ticked up over the last week, were approaching an unprecedented 10%.
“I got a message around 8 a.m. saying that staffing levels” were unsustainable for services, said Zachary DeWolf, president of the Seattle School Board.
Could the district have held on for longer? Maybe, said Clover Codd, the district’s head of Human Resources. But as news of more positive cases poured in over the last week, “people were starting to get anxious and worried,” she said.
A few hours later, in an email sent around noon, district leaders told administrators that they pulled the trigger after conferring with county and school officials. The message instructed principals to treat the closure as if they are going on spring break.
The tone of the message was hurried. It noted twice that there wasn’t a lot of time for school leaders to react.
“We know you do not have time to do everything and we trust that you will do your best given the circumstances,” the email said.
Two other large districts, Lake Washington and Bellevue, announced that they would close, too.
At a 2:30 p.m. news conference, held at the district’s headquarters in Sodo, reporters asked about contingency plans and the outlook for social services that had made district officials reluctant to shutter campuses.
About 50 or 60 sites will be open for food service starting Monday. Ideally, they will operate similar to the way food service is run during the summer, in a collaboration between the district and local child care providers. Employees working at the district’s central office will report to work to help map out the next steps, and salaried school workers will still get paid during the hiatus.
On the list of things the district still needs to figure out: how the district will coordinate childcare for working families, how a long-term closure will impact graduation for high-school seniors and whether hourly workers will get paid during the hiatus.
“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,” Juneau said. “This is something none of us ever expected to face as school leaders.”