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Inslee orders all schools to close statewide; ban on large gatherings extends to all counties

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, talks to the media about the decision to close schools in three counties in response to COVID-19, on Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Olympia, Wash.
Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, talks to the media about the decision to close schools in three counties in response to COVID-19, on Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Olympia, Wash.

Capping an extraordinary news week as the state confronts the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered all K-12 public and private schools to close for at least six weeks.  It comes one day after he announced a six-week school closure for three counties in the Puget Sound region that have so far borne the brunt of the COVID-19 cases.

During his announcement, Inslee said the novel coronavirus has spread to affect 15 counties, representing roughly 75 percent of the state's population. He said state health officials have detected 568 cases so far, including 37 deaths. 

The governor also extended the ban on gatherings with 250 people or more, prohibiting large events across the entire state.

"We need a more coordinated state approach to this problem, given how integrated this state is," Inslee said. 

His latest directive will take 1.2 million children out of school from March 17 through at least April 24, causing upheaval for families across the state. It also means that districts are tasked with figuring out how to continue to feed children who depend on free or reduced-price meals. Statewide, more than 45 percent of students come from low-income families and qualify for discounted or free meals.

Besides the issue of school meals, families are now scrambling to find childcare if parents have to work outside the home. And big questions remain about how children can continue their learning while they’re out of school. Chris Reykdal, superintendent of public instruction, has said that offering online instruction poses equity issues because some students lack computers or internet access and other students who need in-person special education services can’t continue to receive those.

Inslee’s announcement Friday afternoon came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration, which opens up $50 billion in aid to state and local governments. And it comes a day after the final day of the Washington Legislature, when state lawmakers passed a $200 million spending package to respond to the rapidly evolving public health crisis. The move dedicates $175 million to public health and $25 million to a new COVID-19 unemployment fund.

Inslee said the federal government’s emergency declaration will help support Washington’s on-the-ground effort.

Reykdal says districts are expected to walk a fine line between enforcing social distancing and also supporting families who will need to rely on childcare services.

“This is a balancing act,” Reykdal said.

Inslee stressed that transforming schools into childcare centers isn’t feasible, especially as communities work together to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re asking people to think of the schools as a childcare center of last resort,” Inslee said. He noted Washington residents must pull together as citizens have in times of war, adding that nurses and first-responders can’t be pulled from workplaces to care for their children.

Inslee also urged people to stay informed in what has continued to be a fluid and rapidly evolving situation. “We need to guard against viruses and rumors in this situation,” he said.  

Washington is by no means alone in shuttering schools. Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, West Virginia, Oregon and Michigan have all announced statewide school closures to stem the spread of the virus. The illness is mild for the majority of people but is particularly dangerous for older people and those with compromised immune systems or underlying health issues. 

In the Burlington-Edison School District in Skagit County, administrators are trying to sort out how to provide food to kids while schools are closed. They’re also waiting for guidance from the state superintendent’s office on how to continue students’ learning during the next six weeks. Todd Setterlund, executive director of learning and communications for the district, says providing online instruction would be difficult in his district.

“The challenges that that presents are a little daunting, specifically with our student population,” he said. “We have many students who don’t have internet access at home, don’t have access to devices, and we right now see that as a barrier for students.

More than half of the 3,600 students in the Burlington-Edison district come from low-income families. That’s a bigger percentage than the state as a whole.

Erica Quevedo of Mount Vernon has three kids: one in college, one in his junior year of high school, and a five-month-old baby. She says this is how her 16-year-old son reacted to the news of the school shutdown: "He was happy. He’s like, 'Mom, did you hear?'"

But her reaction was more surprise and uncertainty. She says she hasn’t had any time to check into online learning options for him.

"I was hoping it wouldn’t affect us," she said, "but that is something I’m going to research and see what he’ll maybe be able to do online, or see what the school’s going to offer."

Quevedo says she is worried about the virus, especially because of her newborn baby and her 84-year-old mother.

Before Inslee's widespread announcement, the Olympia School District in Thurston County told families that it would shutter schools during the same period of time. The district already had closed Pioneer Elementary School because an individual connected to the school had received an initial positive test result for COVID-19.

“Given that our district has already been impacted by a reportedly presumptive positive case of the illness, and given our close proximity to Pierce County (one of the counties where schools have been directed to close for six weeks), we believe it is a prudent and proactive decision to close,” the district said in an email to families.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.