EVERETT — All public and private schools in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties must close for six weeks through April 24 — a sweeping response to a COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened hundreds and killed more than 30 statewide.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced the unprecedented closure of K-12 schools at a news conference Thursday in Olympia, following a ban of events with than 250 people in those same counties.
Classes must cease no later than Tuesday, and the closures could eventually be extended.
The decision will have a massive ripple effect on the region: 600,000 students, their parents, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, childcare workers, coaches and families.
Snohomish County alone has more than 139,000 students in public schools and more than 4,000 teachers. Those numbers include three districts — Darrington, Northshore and Stanwood-Camano — that straddle county lines.
The new coronavirus has hit the Seattle metro area harder than anywhere in the United States.
At least 31 people in Washington have died after contracting COVID-19, with many deaths linked to the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland. Hundreds have been infected.
Public health officials have tallied 108 confirmed cases in Snohomish County, including three deaths. The virus has also spread to Island County, with three positive test results. Four people who tested positive near the county line had ties to Josephine Caring Community in Stanwood.
The illness is especially deadly for seniors and those with underlying health conditions.
“We do not expect this to slow down,” Inslee said Thursday. “And it will not slow down unless we take action to stop this virus.”
The governor’s order applies to all schools: public, private and charter. It prohibits in-person classes and recreation on school grounds, but does not ban school-sponsored childcare, nutrition programs and other social services.
Statewide, one in six teachers is over age 60, and a disproportionate number of bus drivers and substitute teachers are at risk simply due to their age. Staff attendance has dropped amid the outbreak, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal said.
“Those numbers of adults have found themselves unable to come to work, or made the smart choice not to come to work,” he said. “For some of our districts, it’s been nearly impossible to have a continuity of services. And when you get to that place, you then have a very inequitable public education system.”
Children appear to be remarkably resilient to the illness, but can carry the disease and infect people who are at higher risk.
Student absences spiked in recent days: 82% in King County and 56% in Snohomish County, Reykdal said.
Over half of all students in Washington state attend classes in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.
More than 47,000 students in Snohomish County are from low-income families, and 2,700 are homeless, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Free breakfast and lunch will be available to all families with children in the affected districts, Reykdal said.
“Every single family who needs a meal can come to our schools,” he said. “So if you are a working family and you find yourself in a difficult situation, perhaps your employer has had to let you go, there is not going to be a long line, or a bunch of paperwork, to get nutritious breakfast and lunch for your children. It’s going to be available.”
The Mukilteo School District has a plan set for meals, but is still deliberating what to do about childcare, communications manager Diane Bradford said. On-campus school ended Thursday. Grab-and-go meals will be handed out at Challenger Elementary School from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Bradford said. Those meals are available to anyone 18 or under, including students outside the Mukilteo School District.
The Everett School District will also provide meals during the closure to all kids 18 and under, not just students, at 23 school campuses and at least five to-be-determined apartment complexes. The meals must be pre-ordered, and picked up at a specific time from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. — exact details were still being figured out.
The district serves more than 21,000 students. Officials are surveying parents on childcare needs, an issue it will continue to work on into next week.
In a letter to families Thursday, the Everett district said it would provide learning resources for families but made clear there would be no online instruction or grading of papers.
“The whole thing is to try to prevent regression and keep them engaged in learning,” said Kathy Reeves, a school district spokeswoman. “It’s not instruction because it’s not two-way.”
What occurs in each school in each district could vary, Reykdal said. Some teachers may be able to lead classes via the internet. Many will likely proceed by sending packets of work home. Schools should only use online learning, Inslee said, if they’re able to do so equitably and on par with the quality of in-person classes.
Reykdal expects to keep sending money to public school districts.
Salaried teachers will continue to be paid. The state has not come up with a plan to keep paying hourly workers.
Each month Washington public school employees have a combined income of a billion dollars, Reykdal said.
“We intend to keep that compensation flowing, so we are not a contributor to the economic impact in the short term,” he said.
Yet the closures will seriously impact at-will employees, like substitute teachers.
Barbara Farrand has spent the past four years subbing for the Lakewood School District. She said she normally makes $800 a week, teaching Monday to Friday.
All of her work in the near future was canceled Thursday.
“There’s no way for me to make up that income,” Farrand said.
The district shuttering will cost her thousands.
“For my family,” Farrand said, “that’s a good amount of money and that’s going to affect our overall budget.”
The state superintendent expects schools to make up some lost days during the summer, as if they were snow days. But mathematically, it likely won’t be possible to make up all of them. State academic testing of students will likely be canceled, Reykdal said.
State legislators were working on a plan Thursday to allow high school seniors who were on track to graduate to get their diplomas, even if they won’t hit the minimum number of credits needed.
“We will be looking at the spring of 2020 as an asterisk, if you will,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal reminded people that COVID-19 is not like the normal flu.
There is no vaccine.
And it could cause longer-term closures.
“We have to be prepared, (in case) this is back in the fall,” he said, “or still with us in the fall.”
Fallout from the virus is projected to get worse in the weeks to come.
This week, in his ban of public events, Inslee warned of the dangers of the new coronavirus. Since spreading beyond the borders of China, the number of COVID-19 infections has grown with exponential speed.
“This is not just your ordinary flu,” the governor said at a news conference Wednesday in Seattle. “This demands a response consistent with the nature of the threat.”
Snohomish and King counties took things a step further and banned all public gatherings, of any size, unless organizers could ensure people would not be within 6 feet of each other for longer than a few minutes, among other conditions.
Inslee hosted his press conference Thursday in the large state reception room in Olympia, a larger venue chosen in part to meet social distancing standards meant to curb the outbreak.
Many school districts made the call to close ahead of the governor’s order, announcing closures soon after Inslee held a discussion with school superintendents Wednesday. Of the 15 school districts in Snohomish County, only five — Arlington, Darrington, Lake Stevens, Mukilteo and Index — waited more than a few hours to announce temporary or long-term closures. At first, some districts said they would close for four weeks. Some said six.
Then the governor took the dilemma out of local hands.
The Edmonds School District originally announced it would close through April 10, but that changed with Inslee’s announcement. The last day of school was Thursday.
“We’ll follow whatever directive the governor gives,” spokesperson Harmony Weinberg said.
On Thursday afternoon, Weinberg said, the district was working around the clock to get plans in place for what happens when schools start running again.
The Edmonds School District is still figuring out how to handle food services, childcare and education during the closure and beyond. The district has not determined if online learning is an option.
“We’re just trying to make the best decisions with the best information we have at any given moment,” Weinberg said.
Grace Academy in Marysville had already closed this week for cleaning, because a student’s parent tested positive for COVID-19, and some family members had attended a school event.
The next six weeks will be difficult for the academy and its 330 students, principal Terry Lugg said.
“We will do the best we can to help our students progress in their education even while they’re away,” he said. “I can’t say we’ve got it all worked out yet, but we’ll keep talking and planning as more information becomes available.”
He wasn’t part of the conversation about the six-week closure, before the order Thursday. Earlier in the week he did get a kind of warning from Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers.
“If this will help to slow down the rate of infection,” Lugg said, “then it’s a good thing.”
During closures, the governor asked superintendents to give free childcare to families of first responders and medical professionals.
“We absolutely cannot afford a situation of healthcare providers not working in hospitals because they do not have adequate childcare,” Inslee said.
Marysville father Randy Minor said he’s leaning on family to help with childcare as the Marysville School District shuts down. He has two kids: one in first grade, one in preschool.
As of Thursday, the preschool had not announced a closure.
Minor said he considers himself fortunate. He has a job that allows him to work remotely, if necessary, and family members who are free help out. His first-grade son’s grandmother is a bus driver, so she can help watch the child while school is out.
“We’ve got family members that have odd schedules, so they’re able to pick up the pieces,” he said. “We just have to lean on our resources a little bit harder than we usually would. I can imagine this being a larger burden for other people, especially if you work hourly and can’t afford to not work.”
Herald reporters Jerry Cornfield, Eric Stevick and Rachel Riley contributed.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.