By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Once the decision was made, it happened quickly. On March 10, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) announced that Cleveland STEM High School would be closed for one day after the identification of a staff member who may have been exposed to coronavirus, or COVID-19. On March 11, SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau and the Seattle School Board decided to close SPS for at least 14 days to “disrupt widespread infection.” On March 12, Gov. Jay Inslee mandated that all K-12 schools in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties would close until April 24. Then, on March 13, after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Inslee ordered all public and private K–12 schools in Washington state to close through April 24.
It was not an easy decision.
“Closing schools is the last thing we ever want to do, but, obviously, this is an unprecedented situation for SPS, the city, and the world,” said Juneau in a news release issued on March 11. “The health and wellbeing of our students and staff is one of our top priorities and that’s a primary reason for the decision…”
Prior to the closures, heated debate took place amongst the public as to the efficacy of such a move. Because statistically, so far, the virus does not appear to have a large impact on children, many felt that closing the schools was unnecessary, and would cause too much of a burden on parents, who would then have to find child care, food, and learning options for their children, while also juggling work obligations. In particular, the community worried about consequences to parents in healthcare professions, who are the most needed on the frontlines to fight this virus.
An SPS letter to parents on March 11 stated, “While children appear to be more protected from extreme symptoms, adults, including our educators and employees, need support and protection as well.” SPS and all school districts wished to minimize the duration and impact of closures as much as possible, but the situation quickly stampeded to a state and national level. The Bellevue School District (BSD) issued its own statement on March 12 in response to Inslee’s mandate. “This closure is longer than we originally anticipated, but we fully support protecting the health and safety of our students, staff, and families.”
While many questioned the decision beforehand, once it was made, parents switched into what-to-do-next mode. Will there be any type of learning during the closure? What food resources will be available to low-income families that depend on school lunches? What about child care?
“I knew this day would come, but how does anyone prepare for this?” wondered BSD parent, Angelie Chong. “We’re all reactionary to the crisis. I give huge props to the schools and everyone in the community trying to figure this out. I think our local government has been very responsive.” Chong was aware of the concerns surrounding COVID-19.
“I know the school district got a lot of heat from parents…It’s a tough situation. At first, I was in the camp of we don’t have any positive cases, children are not as vulnerable…and I also thought about those healthcare workers who have children who would then be forced to figure out childcare…it seemed to make sense to not close right away…then I realized that this virus is in our community and the goal is to slow the spread and children can be carriers without being symptomatic…It became clear that this was the only way to try to slow down the spread of the virus…”
Stacy Taketa, a parent whose students attend SPS schools north of Seattle, felt the closures were abrupt, yet she understood the rationale behind the decision.
“Obviously, it’s at a local and global level. It’s something that’s very serious, so I understand closing the schools.” Taketa knew of parents who had been calling schools in advance of the official mandate, wanting to pull their kids, and asking how to procure learning materials.
Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees all school districts in the state, in a March 6 bulletin dictated that schools should not offer online learning during this crisis unless a consistent experience could be guaranteed to all students. OSPI requirements for transitioning to online learning include: “Ensuring all students in the school or district will have equal access to the learning and required materials, including technology,” and “The ability to provide school meals.” OSPI concluded, “Taking a traditional school environment online is not a simple task.”
The decision to close schools came quickly, but the parents, the schools, and the community have rallied just as quickly to come up with solutions. Low-income families rely upon school lunches to feed their children during the week. Cognizant of this, SPS and BSD, among others, immediately assured parents that a free lunch program would be put in place to cover the coming days when children will not be in school. Both districts have posted on their websites locations where free school lunches will be available. Other non-school organizations have also come forward. For Rainier Beach schools, for instance, Washington-Building Leaders of Change will be providing lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
In another act of caring, Jeff Lew, SPS parent, co-founder of lunchdebt.org and former participant in the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s Summer Youth Leadership Program, started a GoFundMe campaign on behalf of Seattle Foundation to raise funds to alleviate the difficulties families might encounter.
“During this crisis, those with the least suffer the most,” said Lew. “Some folks can’t go to the doctor because they don’t have healthcare. Public schools are closed…and some people can’t afford to take off work because they don’t have paid sick leave. Some parents have to choose between paying the rent and feeding their kids.”
According to Lew, the Foundation will use the funds for “residents without health insurance and/or access to sick days, people with limited English language proficiency, healthcare and gig economy workers, and communities of color, among others.” Nearly $45,000 has been raised as of press time.
It seems evident that our community rises to the challenge of supporting each other during a crisis, and that once the crisis is identified, we can find solutions. Taketa mentioned that, in her circle, parents were already texting each other to find out who would be able to babysit.
Chong said, “We’ll just have to navigate this somehow. We’ll look to other parents and the community to work together.”
Parent Jennifer Agustin, whose children attend BSD, said, “We’ve also got a close network of friends and family here on which we can rely…just over the past few days, people have proactively asked me if I need help watching the kids, or even if I need something from Costco. It’s always nice to see people come together at a time like this.”
Alternative learning plans are also taking shape. SPS has announced that, starting March 23, they will be providing “educational activities” through “SPS TV, social media channels, and our website. KOMO-TV will also be sharing our content to help us reach more students…For students who do not have regular access to internet or local TV, we will also be providing aligned, printed activities…”
Taketa knew that some, if not yet all, of her daughter’s teachers had already begun to offer materials online. While Agustin stressed the importance of finding other ways to keep our kids’ minds active during the closures, “I think we’ll also need to discover new ways to incorporate different types of learning into the day, whether that’s spending an hour reading a new book, or observing the things we find during a walk outside.”
In terms of child care, organizations such as Bellevue Boys and Girls Clubs have made the public aware of their availability, and even local Scout troops have discussed the possibilities of activities to keep kids occupied and parents free to go to work.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.