All private and public K-12 schools across Washington state will be closed starting March 17 by executive order of Governor Jay Inslee on Friday, and will remain closed until at least April 24. This action is being taken in response to the escalating COVID-19 outbreak in Washington, which Inslee has pointed out has seen an increase of over 100 cases in the last four days to more than 560 positive cases.
Inslee announced that there will be restrictions placed on activity at state colleges, universities and other higher education schools, essentially making them operate online only for the duration of the closure.
“A county by county approach won’t work,” Inslee said, referring to his March 12 announcement closing schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. “We need a more unified approach to this.
“I’ve been told by my health department that we have a clear and present danger of pretty epic proportions. I don’t think we’ve seen something like this since the 1918 flu.”
State schools superintendent Chris Reykdal added that concern of parents in the state has been growing alongside absentee rates in school across Washington.
At the same time, the availability of substitute teachers and bus drivers has decreased in the last two weeks, which has caused disruptions.
Sequim school superintendent Dr. Rob Clark notified district staff and families just before 2 p.m. on Friday in a district-wide email.
“We are in the midst of an unprecedented health and safety event. We know the community is concerned about COVID-19, and we absolutely share your concerns,” Clark wrote.
“We know this raises all kinds of questions and implications including childcare needs for our staff and families, school meals, graduation, and much more.”
An estimated half-million students — about 45 percent of students statewide — receive daily meals at their schools.
“We are working on plans to address a range of impacts, and we will be in constant communication as we work through these issues,” Clark wrote. “We are working on plans to address a range of impacts, and we will be in constant communication as we work through these issues. We will be planning for an alternative model with the following services:
• available childcare during school hours for families who serve in critical community roles such as healthcare and first responders
• available meals for students – details to follow
• available educational resources with supports for at-home learning
“We recognize this closure creates many different challenges, and our goal is to provide basic services to continue supporting our families and our community. We will continue to provide updated information over the next several days, and we would ask for your patience in submitting any questions or concerns.”
Sequim schools remained open on March 16 as allowed by Inslee’s declaration in order to make sure students and their families are given information on the current situation, Clark said, as well as make sure students have any education materials they need and an opportunity to check out books from the school libraries.
Food distribution, childcare
Information given to students included plans for food distribution planning in order to continue supporting families in need.
Mary Budke, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula, said that the clubs will be available to the schools to help organize and distribute food in the community if called upon.
“We’ve done our summer foods program for a long time,” Budke said. “We’ve got the materials and the knowledge of the community to get it done. But schools have better supply chains available to them.”
Another part of Inslee’s directive is that schools be available to provide childcare for those who need it, particularly for children of medical personnel and first responders.
Childcare will be provided at the Sequim Boys & Girls Clubs for local youths, while options for middle and high school students are still being evaluated with information to come as it is available, Clark said.
One concern Clark has is that he’s not sure what the availability of bus drivers will be, so students being brought in for childcare will need to be brought in to the school by their guardians.
Inslee has also directed for schools to prepare online learning options for students, and he and state schools superintendent are going to let school districts “be creative” in how they do so, as Reykdal put it.
In a special school board meeting on March 12, Clark said that Sequim’s ability to provide such distance learning opportunities is currently limited, but actively being worked on and developed.
Clark said that his staff will come to work that day and on March 18 to plan and prepare for what comes next.
In that March 12 board meeting, Clark mentioned that the state is guaranteeing salaried workers’ incomes, but that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction had not yet made a similar guarantee for school employees who earn an hourly wage.
When asked about the district’s goals on how to take care of those employees during the closure, Clark said, “It is our goal and desire that they will be paid the same as they would normally. Some of that is out of my hands, but that is very much my goal.”
Boys & Girls Clubs open
The Sequim and Port Angeles units of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula will remain open to help provide childcare, but in a much more limited capacity than normal.
Budke said the clubs will be open on their summer camp hours starting, available Monday through Friday from 7:45 a.m.-6 p.m. A daily fee that’s discounted from their normal summer camp fee is being discussed, but has not been set up yet.
However, because of Inslee’s new prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people, they will be unable to serve more than that many children at a time for now, though they are seeking a potential exemption of that for the Sequim unit based on how they can utilize the building to keep proper distancing measures. Budke indicated Monday night that the club had secured that exemption for now, but could not guarantee how long the club will be able to operate at those levels.
Priority will be given to children of first responders, medical personnel and government employees. For new members there will be a simplified registration process, club officials said.
Budke also said that in Sequim, the club will be running a community food program similar to their annual summer foods program for at least the next week while the Sequim School District prepares their own program.
She said that they have a tentative agreement for several food distribution points, including the Sequim clubhouse, but no formal agreements yet.
“Everything is subject to change right now, and we’ll keep everyone updated as changes come,” Budke added.