Washington Schools Work on Meal and Child Care Plans For Extended Closure

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, right, talks to the media about the decision to close all schools in the state in response to COVID-19, as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Olympia, Wash.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, right, talks to the media about the decision to close all schools in the state in response to COVID-19, as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Olympia, Wash. AP Photo/Rachel La Corte

 

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The state is shuttering all of its K-12 schools for about six weeks beginning on Tuesday as part of efforts to combat the new coronavirus.

With Washington state’s K-12 schools set to close for about six weeks as part of the coronavirus response effort, school districts across the state are developing plans to make sure students can continue to get lunch and breakfast and that families who need it have access to child care.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday announced he would order all of the state’s K-12 public and private schools to close beginning on Tuesday, until at least Friday, April 24. 

Chris Reykdal, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, endorsed the move. He explained that even though the virus had not spread to every corner of the state, concerns about it have been growing among parents and absenteeism was up.

But Reykdal, speaking at a Friday press conference with Inslee, emphasized that there are essential services the state would look to school districts to help provide during the closure.

Inslee, meanwhile, stressed that for school workers “this is not a vacation.”

“Work may look different but the expectation is that school employees will still be working,” he said. “I’m urging labor and management to work together,” Inslee added.

Reykdal identified providing access to food and child care, as well as ensuring high school juniors and seniors, in particular, continue to make academic progress as some key priorities.

He said that, as it stands, there are no food shortages within the state’s school system. 

Most districts, Reykdal said, would create multiple checkpoints in their communities where families can come to get breakfast or lunch. It’s also likely that bus drivers could have a role to play in delivering food, although he didn’t go into specifics about how this would look.

At the end of last week, as coronavirus case numbers rapidly rose across the country, more and more governors ordered statewide closures of schools for some periods. 

These have ranged from two weeks in some states to four weeks in Louisiana, where New Orleans is dealing with a growing tally of diagnoses of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. The closures are affecting millions of students, according to a tracker maintained by Education Week. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released school closure guidance that suggested longer closures—like the one Inslee ordered in Washington state—will be more meaningful in halting the virus’ spread.

The guidance, which noted the associated challenges of closing schools, concluded that shorter closures, like two weeks, won’t be effective in reducing community spread. Modeling shows keeping schools closed for at least eight weeks could have more impact on limiting spread, the guidance states. 

In Washington state, officials anticipate that a fraction of the state’s roughly 1.2 million public and private school students, mostly those who are younger, will need child care during the closure. "We're talking about a subset of elementary school students primarily,” Reykdal said.

The idea is to ensure parents who work in health care or emergency services—two fields that are central to the coronavirus response effort—have access to child care. The same goes for parents in low-income families and other households that cannot get time off from work.

“Every parent cannot simply say ‘I'm not going to work anymore and I'm going to go be with my child,’” Reykdal said.

But Inslee said the state was "really asking people to think of the schools as the child care center of last resort.” 

“We can't simply turn the schools just into child care centers,” he added.

Schools that do provide child care, Reykdal said, will be expected to follow “social distancing” precautions that set guidelines for how close people can be together, and how many people can be in a given space, in order to cut down on the risk that the disease spreads.

By the end of next week, he said, the state will be collecting plans from each of the state’s 295 school districts on how they will be approaching the closure.

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Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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