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Coronavirus concerns pose a challenge to school districts in the Puget Sound region

(Rachel La Corte/ The Associated Press)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to the media about the state's coronavirus efforts on Monday in Olympia.

The novel coronavirus outbreak means that school district leaders are faced with making tough calls about whether to keep schools open.

District superintendents closed schools on Monday in Bothell, Renton, Kingston, Covington and Mukilteo. The Lake Washington School District, which encompasses the Kirkland hospital where the state’s coronavirus deaths have occurred, has not closed schools, in spite of an online petition that’s received thousands of signatures.

In Bothell, a staff member at Frank Love Elementary School, came down with flu-like symptoms and was being tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that originated in China and has since spread around the globe. Northshore School District Superintendent Michelle Reid closed Frank Love on Monday. Last week, she closed Bothell High School for two days while the family member of a school employee there was tested for the illness. That test came back negative, according to public health officials.

Reid says she's been consulting with state and local public health officials but ultimately the decision to close those schools was hers.

“I don’t want to make medical decisions. That’s not my area. I just want to make sure schools are safe and healthy for our students and staff,” Reid said in an interview with KNKX Public Radio. “So when we have information, in particular if a medical professional has ordered a test for coronavirus on one of our students or staff, we’re going to pause and make sure that’s okay before we move forward with school.”

Additionally, the Northshore district will close all schools on Tuesday to disinfect them and to provide training to teachers on how to provide remote learning for students, in case schools have to be closed for a longer period of time. Reid said the district has created a link for families to fill out if they need a computing device and a Wi-Fi hostpot to make distance learning possible.

But State Superintendent Chris Reykdal advised in a bulletin late last week that trying to provide instruction online can pose equity issues. He said districts should probably cancel school and make up the missed days at the end of the school year instead.

“We have made clear to districts that their obligation is really uniform access to learning and consistent learning, and that is really challenging to do in a lot of communities where students don’t have access to the technology at home,” Reykdal said in an interview with KNKX Public Radio.

Reykdal said that if schools close down for an extended period of time, districts can ask his office to waive school days. And he said if there are mandatory school closures ordered by health officials or the governor, he will “absolutely provide waivers.”

In Renton, the superintendent closed Hazen High School because a student and parent were being tested for COVID-19 after also exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The school will reopen Tuesday after custodial staff disinfected the building. The district said in a statement that the test results had not yet come back.

Kimberly Bass, president of the Hazen High School PTSA, said she was in favor of the school closure. She has two children at the school.

“I would much rather have the kids have a day or two or three off to make sure the school is clean and sanitized to prevent the spread of this particular virus,” Bass said. “I’m 100 percent behind it.”

She said she's supportive of schools shutting down for longer periods of time if needed. Japan, for example, is carrying out a plan to close most schools in the country until early April.

But Bass said closing school is disruptive for many families. There are a lot of parents who don't have the option to work from home.

“There’s a lot of single parent families where mom or dad can’t afford to take the day off,” Bass said. “Or they’ve got younger children and they can’t afford day care, so they send their kid to school sick anyway.”

And then there’s the concern about how to feed students who normally receive subsidized or free meals if schools shut down for an extended period of time. Reykdal said he’s asked Senator Patty Murray for help in finding out from the U.S. Department of Agriculture whether districts can continue to provide meals to students if schools shut down.


Education Coronavirus CoverageCOVID-19
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.
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