Jay Inslee
Jay Inslee

In a broad stroke to further prevent the spread of COVID-19, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered Thursday all public and private K-12 schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties close beginning next week. Friday, he amended his emergency proclamation to include all Washington schools.

Inslee's mandate states schools must close by the end of the school day Monday, March 16, and remain closed through April 24. The soonest schools can resume, if permitted, is Monday, April 27. Seattle Public Schools had already announced Wednesday it was closing schools beginning Thursday for at least two weeks, but Inslee's directive expands upon that.

At press conference Thursday, Inslee said the state has been “taking bold and aggressive actions” against COVID-19, but to further mitigate the impact even further, schools must close.

“We have reached a tipping point, where the spread of this virus demands we take action,” he said.

He said the number of COVID-19 cases has significantly increased in the past week, and the threat of it spreading further won't stop until more serious measures are taken. To that end, health professionals told Inslee closing schools would greatly assist in slowing the spread of the infection.

Inslee said because school districts provide essential services to families, such as meal programs and childcare, superintendents were asked to formulate plans for these services to continue. Specifically, Inslee asked superintendents to offer free childcare to parents who work in the medical field or are first responders.

“We absolutely cannot afford a shortage of healthcare workers because of no childcare,” he said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdahl said the state will still send money to school districts so they can provide those services. Reykdahl said because families may be negatively impacted by COVID-19, meals will be available to any child in need, not just those who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Both Inslee and Reykdahl stressed how difficult this directive will be for families and students.

Reykdahl said, just in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, 43 school districts and approximately 650,000 students will be impacted by the closure. He said, when school resumes, it is likely school years will be extended into middle or later June to recoup some time lost, but it is impossible for schools to make up for all the days lost.

“We will lose some instructional time in these three counties at a minimum,” Reykdahl said.

Inslee said at his press conference Thursday, school districts are being asked to offer distance learning opportunities if they can, but given the disparate economic conditions in school districts and among families, the state cannot expect this to happen.

“I think it’s really important not to sugar coat the situation that we’re in on either side of the reality scale,” he said. “It is our job to slow down the epidemic. We believe that we can do it.”

SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau said in a news release Thursday afternoon that, while Inslee's directive poses a challenge, the district will comply.

“Our staff has been in deep planning and ongoing discussions every day as the coronavirus crisis has evolved, so we've already got a solid plan in place,” Juneau said in the press release. “We're fully prepared to fold in the governor's directive and move forward.”

Friday morning, Seattle Public Schools announced school student lunch sites, which will be available to all SPS students beginning Monday.  The school lunch sites will be open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. Because of social distancing guidelines, all meals must be picked up and consumed elsewhere. Large gatherings will not be permitted on site.