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Gov. Inslee orders all schools in tri-county area to close in response to coronavirus outbreak

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Wednesday at a press conference about the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak. On Thursday, the governor ordered all schools in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to close March 16 through April 24.
Parker Miles Blohm
Gov. Jay Inslee speaks Wednesday at a press conference about the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak. On Thursday, the governor ordered all schools in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to close March 16 through April 24.

UPDATE, 5:55 p.m.: Corrects date when schools must shut down, and adds information about child care and food distribution. 

Gov. Jay Inslee announced widespread school closures Thursday, shuttering all public and private K-12 schools in 43 districts across King, Snohomish and Pierce counties for six weeks.

Inslee’s executive order says schools must shut down starting March 17. They will remain closed through April 24. The mandate will affect about 600,000 students and their families across the Puget Sound region, the epicenter of the nation’s novel coronavirus outbreak.

“We do not take these decisions lightly and I am fully aware of the various impacts this has on families and communities,” Inslee said during a press conference in Olympia. “Today’s decision has a full range of implications from learning plans and childcare, to free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch, just to name a few. I anticipate this will cause ripple effects throughout our state. But we can’t afford not to do it. We must ensure that we slow the spread of this virus.”

Thursday’s announcement is the second sweeping mandate to come out of the governor’s office in as many days. On Wednesday, Inslee prohibited all gatherings of 250 people or more in those three populous counties.

Officials at all levels of government acknowledged the disruptions caused by the massive closure. Still, they said the outbreak is rapidly evolving, often by the day.

"The situation today is vastly different than it was last week, or even two days ago," said Chris Reykdal, superintendent of public instruction, said in a statement released following the announcement.

He said the health and safety of students, school staff and their families is paramount. He reiterated what officials stressed a day earlier: other districts that are still operating should have plans in place in case circumstances shift.

“Schools and districts around the state should be contingency planning for potential closures, including planning how they will continue to provide meals and other vital services while schools are closed,” Reykdal said. “We are in this together, and our strength will bring us through this trying time.”

Reykdal said districts are expected to work with local associations to continue compensating staff during the six-week hiatus, "ensuring that critical work and professional development will continue," he said in a statement. "In addition, districts will continue providing meals to students who need them."

Inslee said he's working with philanthropic organizations about ways to help students, and he may involve the National Guard in distributing meals to students. Additionally, he said he's asked districts to provide free child care to parents who work in the medical field or are first responders.

"We absolutely cannot afford a situation of health care providers not working in hospitals because they do not have adequate child care," Inslee said. 

MORE INFORMATION FROM OSPI School Closures Q&A COVID-19 in Schools: A Parent Guide (English) Coronavirus Novel (COVID-19) en escuelas de grados kínder a doce: Una guía para padres (Spanish) OSPI’s COVID-19 Guidance to School Districts COVID-19 Information from the State Department of Health

Leaders in all three counties echoed one another in the call for supporting families during a time of uncertainty.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said officials are working together at all levels to provide stability in a time of uncertainty.

“Schools are there to provide an education — they connect children with early learning opportunities, health services and, for many, their main meal of the day,” Constantine said. “We will continue to work with the governor’s office, local school district superintendents, and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to ensure that during this time of uncertainty, students, parents, and our dedicated public education professionals have the support they need to thrive.”

Dave Somers, Snohomish County executive, said the move is a significant step toward curbing the outbreak.

“Closing schools has been shown to disrupt transmission and flatten the curve,” he said. “We need consistency across the region, and these closures will give schools time to plan, ensuring our kids all have access to nutrition and instruction.”

This story is developing. Check back for details.

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In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.