Inslee announces major school closures for a month

Districts work to find resources and help for lower-income, working families

All schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties will be closed for the next month after an announcement made by Governor Jay Inslee. School districts in the rest of the state are being told to prepare for a state-wide closure in the upcoming days.

During a press conference at 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, Inslee announced the closures in response to the Washington COVID-19 outbreak. Just a day before Inslee also announced a proclamation to ban all events or gatherings with crowds of 250 or more people.

“During times of uncertainty and risk, we all have to make tough decisions,” Inslee said. “This is one of them.”

Inslee also advised all college campuses should prepare for potential closures as well.

Inslee said he spoke with superintendents from all three counties to create contingent plans to keep providing meals and shelter for low-income and homeless students. He said the state is also speaking with nonprofits to help provide meals to neighborhoods.

“We know that districts vary widely in their capabilities to provide these tele-education systems,” Inslee said. “So schools should not be providing online services unless they prove effective.”

Inslee also said superintendents should provide childcare for no cost to medical care employees.

“Now is a time for us to come together, and I encourage local education associations to work with their educators as much as possible to ensure the health of students and staff,” Inslee said.

While the proclamation is only for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, Inslee said he may include other counties in the future and districts should start making plans.

“I trust the districts in the rest of the state will have conversations with their communities to be ready,” he said.

The Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruct Chris Reykdal said schools remained a safe place and rates of COVID-19 in children are low, but consistently changing situations have led to the closures. Teens and children may never be symptomatic, he said, but they can spread the virus to grandparents and vulnerable family members.

The three counties include over 6,000 students, nearly half of the student population in the state.

Reykdal said he expects schools to start within a month, but that could change.

Attendance numbers in the three counties show an 82 percent increase in absences during the outbreak, Reykdal said. Staff attendance is also down, and many bus drivers and substitute teachers are over the age of 60 and are not attending work.

“The outbreak continues to expand … you’ve seen those numbers and seen where they are located,” Reykdal said. “I want to say to folks who keep thinking this is like the flu … we don’t have a vaccination for this and that’s quite a way out.”

Reykdal also said this will give school leaders a chance to prepare for this upcoming fall in COVID-19 rises again with the usual flu and cold season.

Reykdal also called out local labor unions to gather and help prepare districts and to work with district leaders for teachers’ issues.

“We are going to keep sending money to our school districts,” Reykdal said. “It will still include transportation and supporting individuals. This will take an enormous economic impact on our state and our nation. Our hourly workers are challenged … we are working to try to figure out strategies to keep compensation flowing. And every single family who needs a meal can come to our schools. If you are a working family and you find yourself in a difficult situation, there is not going to be a long line to get a nutritious breakfast or lunch for your children.”

High school seniors and their parents will need to be in contact with their high schools for graduation requirements, Reykdal said. State testing will be suspended statewide most likely. Reykdal said there is no meaningful way to test students while classes are out.

“We haven’t seen this in the state of Washington or the United States in over 100 years,” Reykdal said. “There are nervous and worried families, and we are working really hard in partnership to find answers to those questions and to maximize support for families. We are a visible observation for the rest of the country, which is why we are taking broad steps with our schools.”

Kent School District responds

Kent Superintendent Dr. Calvin Watts posted a video to the district’s Facebook page to update parents on the closure.

“We’ll get through this together,” Watts said. “Public Health officials told us to be prepared to be closed for four to six weeks.”

Watts said he understands there are a lot of questions around meals, daycare and other school needs. Watts said the district is working with state and local partners. The video leads parents to the district’s website for more information.

“I want to extend my appreciation and gratitude to our entire KSD community, especially to our KSD members for your continued patience and support as we navigate this current reality together.

Watch the video here;

Thursday, March 12 is the last day of school for the foreseeable future for KSD students.

“We are allowing parents, staff and students opportunities to collect learning materials and personal items they might need Monday, March 16 through Wednesday, March 18, 2020,” the KSD website states. “We are working to prepare activities and resources for students for the prolonged absence. This will not take the place of regular classroom instruction but will supplement student learning at home. Assignments will not be required or graded. These activities are meant to provide optional opportunities for student learning while they are absent from school.”

This includes the cancellation of all out-of-district transportation, school events, community rentals, athletic practices and competitions.

Tahoma School District responds

Tahoma School District Spokesperson Kevin Patterson was able to answer questions for parents and teachers while the district works with OSPI on the immediate closures.

1. What percentage of students at Tahoma us free or reduced lunch? What’s the population of homeless students at Tahoma? Our Free and Reduced is about 12 percent in the district. We have about 60 students from 47 families who receive McKinney-Vento Act (homeless) services.

2. Will any classes be provided online? Or will Tahoma be doing take-home packets?

We are exploring how we can offer some level of online education service, within the parameters set by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. We will have more information about that next week.

3. What should seniors expect to help them graduate this year? Will there be any graduation ceremonies? We are planning to hold a commencement ceremony for Tahoma High School on June 10. Should that change, we will announce it. We will work with seniors to ensure they have what they need to graduate and we are awaiting further information from OSPI to determine exactly what will be required.

4. Will childcare only be provided to healthcare and first responders, as Inslee mandated, or will there be options for other families? We currently plan to follow the governor’s request to provide childcare for first responders and healthcare professionals only. We will announce details early next week.

5. The press release says the district will work with the Maple Valley food bank. Will students pick up lunches at their schools? We plan to provide lunch and breakfast pickups beginning next week. Backpack Buddies will continue to provide food for weekends. The food bank is expanding its hours. We will announce details by Monday.

6. Will there be any transportation available for families who need to come for lunch but possibly don’t have a ride? We are not providing transportation.

7. Will teachers and staff be paid during these closures? We are awaiting further information from OSPI.

8. Does the district expect to add on days during the summer to finish the school year? OSPI has set June 19 as the last school day but we have asked questions about whether districts have the latitude to add days. We are awaiting further information from OSPI.