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caption: Hazen High School is shown on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Renton.
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Hazen High School is shown on Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Renton.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

School districts grapple with coronavirus closure decisions - and what comes next for kids

Districts are navigating evolving guidance from public health officials - and questions about how to maintain services to children, especially those most vulnerable, if schools are closed for weeks or months.

After new recommendations from public health officials to avoid large gatherings, some Seattle-area parents are asking why more schools aren’t being closed to avoid the spread of coronavirus – and what will happen if and when schools do close for long stretches.

In recent days, public health officials warned that guidelines such as when to close schools will be changing as more is learned about the coronavirus – and how it spreads.

Renton School District spokesperson Randy Matheson says that’s what happened in the case of Hazen High School, which closed Monday as a student awaited test results for COVID-19.

The school reopened Tuesday at the advice of Public Health - Seattle & King County, Matheson said. “At that time, we were telling parents, regardless of test results, we're gonna be open. We're moving forward with education. Everybody's fine. And of course, that changed at 11:30 [Tuesday] night with the health department.”

That's when Public Health told the district that the student had tested positive for COVID-19 – and that Hazen High should close again, Matheson said. School is now canceled for the rest of the week.

Matheson said with so much in flux, parents and staff can be baffled about when and why schools are closed - and reopened. “We are trying to inform our public how we're making decisions with the help of Public Health, and then obviously it’s fluid with Public Health, and they're changing their processes, as well,” Matheson said.

At Hazen, mom Angelica Garcia said she wished the district had left the school closed until the student’s test results came back. Garcia’s sister has leukemia, and she’s worried that her child might have brought home the coronavirus.

“I know they did clean [Hazen] over the weekend, and then Monday,” Garcia said, “but then they went back to school on Tuesday, which I think, you know, they should just have remained closed. And not opened the doors again.”

Health departments and the governor have the authority to require school closures. But so far, public health officials have simply advised districts, and let superintendents make the call.

At a news conference Wednesday, Public Health - Seattle & King County health officer Jeff Duchin said that even though his agency is now recommending that people avoid large gatherings, and that adults work from home if possible, school closures are trickier.

When it comes to closing schools, “We know more about the downsides than we do with the benefits at this point," Duchin said.

"We closed schools during H1N1 and we saw tremendous community disruption," Duchin said. "Parents had to stay home from work who needed to be at work. It affected our health care workforce, as well. Many nurses were pulled out to care for their children.”

Duchin said that when students stay home, they’re paradoxically more likely to spread the virus to the adults caring for them – adults who are more likely to be hard-hit by the disease than kids. “If this disease was very harmful to children, we would be closing schools at a much lower threshold. A very small percentage of children get serious disease,” Duchin said.

“Then the other big unknown is how important are [children] in the transmission? And so with those uncertainties and with the fact that it's not causing serious disease, it's not one of the things we're gonna go to right away,” Duchin said.

Still, Duchin said, the coronavirus outbreak is a rapidly-changing situation, and forces public health officials to reassess every day. With new numbers comes new math about what’s worth closing, and what should remain open.

As school districts plan for potential long-term outbreak closures, major concerns include whether schools can keep delivering lessons, and the school meals upon which many low-income students rely.

In Northshore School District, where starting today all schools were shuttered for as long as two weeks due to the coronavirus, students are scheduled to resume their studies online on Monday. Staff had an all-day training Tuesday about how to teach remotely in the event of long-term closures.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal this week advised superintendents to ensure that any distance learning options they were considering would be equitable for all students.

Northshore, an unusually well-off district, has enough devices and wi-fi hotspots to lend to students who don’t have what they need at home for online learning, said Superintendent Michelle Reid.

"I certainly acknowledge that we have those resources that maybe other districts don't, but we're going to try this," Reid said.

Bellevue School District, too, has plans for some potential online learning if schools are canceled long-term. “The district is developing short-term and long-term learning plans in for all levels, including special education students,” wrote spokesperson Amanda Rich in an email.

In Bellevue, all middle and high school students have district-provided laptops and are already doing some online learning and collaboration. For other students, Rich said, the district will have have mobile hotspots, mobile devices and laptops available to check out.

In Seattle, Superintendent Denise Juneau said, her district will be low-tech in its offerings. “Because it’s a large, urban district, online learning – there would be some equity issues with that, because there would be some students who may not have access to technology at home,” Juneau said in an NPR interview Wednesday.

“We are going to go old-school and put together learning packets, and make sure that those are available - should there have to be a closure, that there's access to some type of learning at home,” Juneau said.

Auburn, Federal Way, Mukilteo and Highline School Districts said they had not yet made a decision about distance learning if the coronavirus leads to long school shutdowns.

Whether or not kids are doing distance learning if schools are closed long-term, they’ll all need to eat. Many low-income families rely on schools to provide federally-subsidized breakfasts and lunches – for many children, the bulk of their daily nutrition.

Statewide, 43 percent of all public school students receive subsidized meals. The percentage varies widely by district, however, from 12 percent of students in Northshore in Seattle's northeast suburbs, to 30 percent in Seattle, to 66 percent southwest of Seattle, in Highline School District.

In summertime, many families turn to the federal summer meal program, which allows kids to get sack lunches at sites like parks, public libraries and community centers. In recent years, that program has been expanded to include an EBT card that low-income families can use to stock their own pantries during the summer months.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said that federal funding for school lunches will continue for individual schools that are closed in a district. In that case, OSPI spokesperson Katy Payne wrote in an email, students could get meals from an open school in the district.

When an entire district is closed, Reykdal told state lawmakers at a House Education Committee hearing Wednesday, it’s unclear whether federal funding would still flow for school meals.

“We are in a bit of a void right now with the U.S. Department of [Agriculture], to be candid with you, because we're not sure if they allow their federal reimbursement process to work as effectively as it ought to,” Reykdal said.

In the case of a full-district closure, Payne explained, the state would need a waiver from the USDA in order to distribute school meals to those students. OSPI is preparing a waiver request with support from U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Reykdal said.

“Typically, these are only offered when there is an emergency declaration by the president,” Payne wrote in an email. “The USDA has not released official guidance related to this, and as of yesterday afternoon, they were not planning to do so,” Payne wrote.