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All K-12 public and private schools in Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties must close from March 17 through April 24 to help slow the spread of coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.
The governor’s emergency proclamation impacts about 600,000 students in 43 districts in the three counties. The six-week closure coincides with spring breaks in the district. The first possible weekday back is April 27, but state officials said the coronavirus also could affect the next school year that begins this fall. Schools in other counties also may be closed soon, Inslee said.
“Although this virus presents much milder symptoms in children, health professionals have told us that closing schools could create a significant cut in the peak number of ultimate infections. And closing school districts will help slow the transmission of this dangerous virus.
“School districts within the region also are experiencing unparalleled students absences even today. Many districts also are struggling to staff their operation,” the governor added.
The governor said he has asked the school districts for a plan to provide opportunities for extended learning during the six-week closure, similar to packets that teachers send home during Thanksgiving and winter breaks.
“Now we know that districts vary widely in their capabilities to provide these tele-education systems out of the classroom. Therefore, schools should not be providing online services unless it really is effective and we hope that it will be,” he said.
Inslee said school districts will need to continue to provide “critical services” including free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch, as well as child care. The governor said he has asked superintendents in the three counties to have a plan to continue those services. The state is working with philanthropic and service organizations to help disadvantaged students, such as distributing box lunches. That effort also may involve the National Guard.
If a school provides child care, the governor said he expects the staff will take every measure possible to provide social distancing, ensure consistent hand-washing, send students if they are sick, and routinely disinfect commonly-touched surfaces.
Also, Inslee said he has asked superintendents in the three counties to provide child care at no cost to families who are in the medical fees or are first responders.
‘We absolutely cannot afford a situation of health care providers not working at hospitals because they do not have adequate child care,” he said.
Inslee said he made the “very difficult decision” on the school closures after several discussions with state Secretary of Health John Wiesman and other health experts, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, school district superintendents and county executives in the three counties, parents, and the Washington Education Association.
Schools must close at the end of the school day on March 16.
“Districts have asked us for a little time, in some cases, to prepare. They still have the local choice, of course, to close sooner than that,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal said districts also have to prepare that COVID-19 “is back in the fall or still with us in the fall.”
“This opportunity to close right now gives our districts a very serious moment to think about their strategies and professional development to get our staff and faculty prepared for a lot more learning that may happen at a distance. That is not a mandate of the current closure, but that is part of the reason for our thinking right now. We need to be prepared for not just the moment today, but this fall,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal said state testing is likely to be suspended statewide, not just in the three counties.
“There’s no meaningful way to produce those assessments with the kind of student absence that we expect from this forced closure and the subsequent closures that are likely,” he said.
As of Thursday afternoon, there were 457 cases in 13 counties, including 17 in Pierce County and one each in Whatcom and Thurston counties. The death toll has reached 31, according to the state Department of Health.
The governor’s press conference came half an hour after the state State Department of Health confirmed that an employee working at the department’s Tumwater campus has tested positive for COVID-19.
The employee was last at work on March 6, and had no symptoms. Over the weekend, the employee began feeling unwell and followed up with their doctor. They took immediate action to isolate themselves, which drastically reduced exposure to others, the health department said.
The employee will remain at home away from others until recovering, state officials said. Wiesman said he did not have any contact with the employee.
School districts in Pierce County have continued to make changes in response to coronavirus impacts and the mandate by Inslee to ban public gatherings with more than 250 people.