Washington Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) orders a statewide school closure to slow the spread of COVID-19, on March 13, 2020. Several schools in the Puget Sound region have already been shuttered for more than a week, either to disinfect their buildings or because a student had tested positive. On March 11, Seattle's public schools announce their complete closure. On March 12, Inslee orders the closure of all public and private schools in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, the center of the outbreak. Yet with this March 13 announcement, life is about to change for students, teachers and parents in every corner of the state. They have only a few days to prepare, because the closure order takes effect on March 17. School districts from Spokane to Aberdeen scramble to make plans to provide meals for the students who depend on them. Parents scramble to arrange work schedules and childcare. Inslee concedes that this "would cause ripple effects throughout our state," but that "we can't afford not to do it" ("Inslee Announces School Closures"). The closure order runs through April 24, but on April 6, Inslee extends the closure through the end of the school year.
"A Very Difficult Judgment Call"
This proved to be a pivotal moment in the state's COVID-19 crisis, because the order fundamentally disrupted the daily routines of more than a million students and their parents. Although the statewide "Stay Home-Stay Healthy" order was still 10 days in the future, this order had similar repercussions for families with children. Working parents now had little choice but to stay home with their children -- or to arrange increasingly scarce childcare.
Inslee called the school order "a very difficult judgment call," but said that a "county-by-county approach to this epidemic is not sufficient" (Dreher). On the same day, Inslee issued a statewide ban on all gatherings of more than 250 people, a ban that he had already imposed on King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. He also announced new restrictions on universities and other post-secondary schools.
These sweeping measures were intended to tamp down an increasingly volatile medical crisis. The COVID-19 infections, originally centered in the Puget Sound area, were now spreading throughout the state. Inslee laid out the rationale in his March 13 school-closure proclamation: "Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have now spread to 15 counties in Washington State, which represents 75% of the State's population, and the number of positive test results have increased 29% in the last four days ... [and] while we do not fully understand the role children have in transmitting the virus, we do know they have a significant role in transmitting other respiratory viruses" ("Proclamation 20-09"). Inslee said "it was necessary to implement additional stringent measures to limit opportunities for disease transmission statewide beyond King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties" ("Proclamation 20-09").
Officials were fully aware of the serious implications of closing every school in the state. Parents might have to quit working to care for their children -- and some of those parents might be essential medical care workers. Thousands of kids relied on school lunches and the services of school nurses. How would those children be served? Incidents of domestic violence might even increase.
Yet officials were also aware that closing schools sent an important and unmistakable message about the increasing gravity of the medical crisis. "We're accustomed to schools closing when something really serious happens," King County Executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961) later said. "It was a way to speed up people's perceptions -- to send a message they could understand" (Duhigg).
Meanwhile, school superintendents across the state said they had plans to mitigate some of the concerns. Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said her district would continue to provide meals for students in need, maintain its before- and after-school childcare programs, and provide childcare for "parents in health care roles, first responders and vulnerable populations" (Dreher). Similar messages were repeated in districts all over the state.
From the beginning of the closure, demand was high for bagged lunches and breakfasts. In Spokane, schools had 2,100 bags ready to be picked up by kids and parents -- and ran out within hours. They hurriedly bagged up another 1,000 meals. Sam Browne, an unemployed Spokane man, brought his two kids. "A lot of parents don't have the means, and some of us have to stay home," said Browne. "For today, this helps. Tomorrow is another day" (Allen, "School Meals").
Yet the majority of children in the state were getting lunch at home -- and in April, many were getting their schoolwork at home as well. At first it had been unclear whether the closure was an extended school vacation. It did, after all, coincide with spring break. But after complex discussions with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction's office, the teachers' unions, and the state's district officials, Inslee made it clear that he expected districts to try their best to reach students through distance learning.
The state gave schools a deadline of March 30 to come up with plans to teach remotely. Over the next few weeks many teachers began distributing lessons over the internet or, for students without internet, via paper packets. Some classes met in online forums, using meeting applications such as Zoom.
Equity was a serious issue, because not all students had access to the internet. Amazon stepped in and donated 8,200 laptops to Seattle students, but access remained a problem across the state. Online learning proved to have mixed results. In Spokane, the district reported that about half to three-quarters of its elementary students were using its online learning app in a given week. Some teachers suspected "as few as 10 percent of their students are fully engaged in distance learning" (Allen, "Lockdown Widens Gap"). Many harried parents were trying to serve as surrogate teachers, between working their own jobs from home.
Hopes for a prompt return to school were dashed on April 6, 2020, when Inslee announced that he was extending the school-closure order through the end of school year. By April 6, cases of COVID-19 had grown to 7,984 in the state, with 338 deaths. Inslee said the extension was necessary to "keep our kids, educators and communities safe" ("Inslee Extends School Closures").
School was out for summer -- at least.
Next: Governor Inslee issues a statewide "Stay Home-Stay Healthy" order on March 23, 2020.