This week, three public school districts — Northshore, Meridian and Snohomish — shut their buildings to nearly 36,000 students combined.
With mounting pressure from parents and public concern over the potential for the new coronavirus to proliferate in schools, the scale and breadth of these closures has expanded dramatically.
And it hasn’t showed any signs of stopping.
Since Feb. 27, at least 115 public and private schools and universities in Washington state closed their facilities for one or more days to prevent the spread of the illness — an average of about 13 closed buildings per school day. It’s hard to keep up with the closures, which have come either out of caution or after knowledge that a confirmed case of COVID-19 had breached a school’s community.
Most so far are trickling in district by district as health department officials or school-district leaders learn of kids and staff coming into contact with the virus. Snohomish shut down on Tuesday and planned to reopen Wednesday. Seattle Public Schools (SPS) announced its first closures, Aki Kurose Middle School and Cleveland High, on Tuesday evening.
The district said both schools needed a deep cleaning: at Aki Kurose, a staff member contracted the virus, and at Cleveland, which district officials said would be shut for one day only, a staff member came into close contact with someone who was diagnosed.
Many of these decisions are made in the span of just a few hours, with or without direction from other agencies or a confirmed case of the virus. The varying explanations officials have offered for closing reveal a divide in what school administrators consider to be the cost of shutting down classrooms.
For James Everett, who leads Meridian School District in Whatcom County, hearing that a middle school staff member came into close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 was enough to shutter his four schools for deep cleaning from Monday through Thursday.
“It could become a case where key staff members could become infected and then become unable to provide services,” said Everett.
In places like Seattle, administrators have been more conservative with cancellations in an effort to avoid cutting off social services to kids. The district said it was closing Aki Kurose indefinitely at the recommendation of King County health officials.
Publicly, the district has repeatedly stressed the importance of confirmed cases and input from outside agencies as a part of its decision-making. At Aki Kurose, students who depend on school for free or reduced-price meals will be able to pick up food on campus between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on weekdays while the school is closed.
Meanwhile, school attendance rates have dipped. On March 9, nearly 15% of Seattle Public Schools’ 50,000-plus students were absent, compared to 7.4% just 10 days prior, according to numbers provided by the district.
Staff absences were up, too. Last Friday, 8.9% of certified teachers called in to take a sick day or personal day, compared to the nearly 5% average rate for the last four weeks.
Students who need to stay home due to illness will be excused, Tim Robinson, the district’s spokesman, wrote in an email last week. When asked if there is a limit on absences, Robinson replied: “There isn’t a limit, but it’s also not a topic that’s easily defined in black and white terms. SPS works with each individual student regarding excused or unexcused absences.”
Staff members who test positive for the virus and need to go into a two-week quarantine can use three sick days, and take the rest as paid emergency leave, said Michael Tamayo, president of the Seattle Education Association union. Workers represented by the 6,000-plus member union who haven’t tested positive but fall into a high-risk group, such as pregnant women and those over 60, can access the same policy with a doctor’s note.
SPS employees who work at closed schools are generally paid for that day’s work, said Tamayo, but the lines become blurry if the closures last more than a few days, especially for nonsalary employees. Union officials are trying to work out those details.
As the virus spreads, Tamayo says he also worries about the pool of substitute teachers getting slim. Many of them are over 60, he said.
So far, the only large district to shut down for an extended amount of time has been Northshore, which is conducting operations online for the next two weeks. That district of 24,000 kids was also the site of likely the first public-school closure in Washington over concerns about the virus.
Actions there could be contagious.
As the number of closures has risen, the crowd of people urging other institutions to follow suit has grown in size. The University of Washington went online-only last week after a massive petition for the school to close. And as of Tuesday night, more than 53,000 people signed a petition to close Lake Washington School District, which covers several of the public schools closest to the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the epicenter of the country’s outbreak.