Seattle Public Schools will close for a minimum of two weeks starting Thursday, according to an email sent to school administrators Wednesday. The district later confirmed the news in a press release.

The email said the decision was made after conferring with county and school officials. It instructs principals to treat the closure as if they are going on spring break, and lists some guidance for going forward.

“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.

Unprecedented school closures cut off access to food, instruction for thousands amid coronavirus concerns

The announcement comes after the district’s early move to stay open in an effort to make sure children don’t suddenly see a loss in services, including instruction and food for students who need it.

But since then, Gov. Jay Inslee hinted that schools should be making contingency closure plans, in light of his restrictions on gatherings of over 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

As of Wednesday, SPS, which educates over 52,000 students, was still working on the details of how working families would get childcare. To get food, starting Monday, students will have to get to 50 or 60 school sites; there is no plan to offer food on Thursday or Friday.

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It’s also unclear how this will affect the district’s staff. While salaried employees are covered during a school closure, union and state officials said they’re still unclear on whether hourly employees such as instructional assistants would still get paid during a long-term closure.

During a March 11 press conference, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools across the state to immediately begin contingency planning for potential closures in the next several days.

On Wednesday, two individual SPS schools had already closed because of concerns of exposure at those particular schools. SPS spokesman Tim Robinson said the district shut down because “a growing number of factors have made it impossible for the district to operate normally.” Those factors include an increasing number of confirmed cases, the rising need to deep clean schools due to potential COVID-19 exposure and Inslee’s announcement.

Superintendent Denise Juneau said in the statement that the closure was a last resort. “Closing schools is the last thing we ever want to do, but, obviously, this is an unprecedented situation,” she said. “The health and well-being of our students and staff is one of our top priorities and that’s a primary reason for the decision, but it’s also because of the potential wide reach COVID-19 can have.”

The city’s preschool programs that meet at SPS campuses will be closed as part of the districtwide closure. All other preschool programs will remain open or closed at their specific provider’s discretion.

Officials said at a Wednesday press conference that they were still hashing out the details of their closure plan. “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,” said Juneau. “This is something none of us ever expected to face as school leaders.”

Inside the day Seattle Public Schools decided to close because of the coronavirus

Because the district will not be able to ensure all students have access to computers outside of school, there will be no online learning. The details of how working families would get childcare were still under construction.

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The email the district sent administrators said that details related to such matters as human resources, special education, food services, school cleaning, budgeting and graduations would be addressed later.

“We are committed to making sure seniors walk across the stage and see their diploma,” Juneau said at a press conference.

The guidance in the email says that teachers should send students home with any learning materials that have been prepared. “Send home books for student [sic] to read if you have them,” it said.

Schools will be locked and inaccessible to teachers.

“We want to reassure you that we recognize you can’t do it all in such a compressed time. Continue to do the best you can for your students and staff.”

Seattle Public Schools will close for a minimum of two weeks starting Thursday. (Anne Hillman / The Seattle Times)

The district planned to alert families at 1 p.m.

“The decision to close was extremely difficult,” read a different email the SPS Office of Public Affairs sent to school employees on Wednesday. “We know that closing our schools will impact our most vulnerable families, and we recognize that working families depend on the consistency and predictability of supports and services our schools offer.”

That message continued, “Our goal has been to keep our doors open as long as possible in order to support our students and the entire community.”

The same email said the district had previously been following the guidance of county health officials, but that in light of Inslee’s statements about possible school closure orders, “it is now time for the district to act swiftly.” An emergency food plan will be put into place on Monday, March 16.

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