Eastern Washington faces a steep learning curve as school officials prepare to implement Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to shut down every school in the state for at least six weeks in the face of the coronavirus threat.
In Spokane County, that means serving the academic, nutritional, financial and emotional needs of more than 90,000 students.
Doing so includes quickly dealing with online and paper lessons, access to food services, day care and mental health counseling in the face of a virus that so far has killed 37 Washingtonians and infected 568.
“In response to this unprecedented event, our focus is supporting students and families during the period of time schools are closed,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said Friday afternoon.
That period begins Tuesday and will last until at least April 24, Inslee said Friday afternoon. School will be in session on Monday “as a way to connect with our students as we will not see them for an extended period of time,” Redinger said.
It’s also unclear when and if any days would need to be made up. The school year is scheduled to end on June 12.
Inslee’s decision overruled a recommendation two hours earlier from Dr. Bob Lutz of the Spokane Regional Health District.
“There is no or minimum evidence that this is an infection that is spreading in young people,” Lutz said at a news conference in Spokane.
“I think it would be prudent to advise not closing schools at this time, but again it’s an evolving situation, and new science may say otherwise,” said Lutz, who also noted the absence of any confirmed cases in the region.
As it turned out, it was Inslee who said otherwise.
“We need to get ahead of this wave, and we need to do it today,” said Inslee, who cited the need for statewide coordination. “I don’t take these decisions lightly. We’re doing this for the health of all Washingtonians.”
Redinger said she got the word shortly after Lutz’s news conference but well before Inslee’s.
“We want to be team players and support the decision the governor made,” Redinger said.
Soon the machinery began to move, starting with a message on the district’s website. After outlining the district’s developing plans, it closed with a hopeful note.
“The heart of Spokane is the care we show toward each other as a community,” it read. “During this time our partnerships and connections are more important than ever as we bond together to navigate the days ahead.”
The navigation began almost two weeks ago with meetings headed by Becky Doughty, health director for the district. The pace will pick up over the weekend, as Spokane and other districts prepare on several fronts.
“We’re going to be very busy this weekend,” said Redinger, who said not everything will be in place by Tuesday.
One of the first questions she faced on Friday was on the topic of nutrition. With 57% of the district’s 31,000 students receiving free and reduced-price meals, that will a priority, Redinger said.
By the middle of next week, the district plans to set up meal hubs and also work with Second Harvest and Bite 2 Go to widen access to food.
“Working with the state, there will be some exemptions so that more students can have access to the meals and so we’re going to have food distribution hubs throughout the community for families,” Redinger said.
“We will use next week to fine-tune all of the planning,” Redinger said.
On the issue of child care, Redinger said the district is committed to supporting Inslee’s request to serve first responders and essential medical personnel.
“We are fortunate in Spokane Public Schools that we have Express Childcare already in place, so we will be able to get that in place really quickly,” Redinger said.
However, it’s unclear how much child care relief can be given to working families.
Lesson planning remains the biggest challenge, especially as many families lack laptops and internet connectivity. Details remain to be worked out, but Redinger expects online lessons to be supplemented by paper and pencil.
“Responding to this situation is fluid, and we will adjust our plan to support students as information becomes available,” Redinger said.
The district’s curriculum coordinators will take the lead in creating lesson plans, Redinger said.
Local libraries also are shutting down after the weekend, putting an even greater burden on the district.
Yet another challenge is the suspension on Friday of standardized testing.
“We will be working with the College Board” on that issue, Redinger said.
Finally, in expectation of the stress that the upheaval will cause for students, Redinger promised that “We are going to work very closely with our counselors as well as our mental health therapists on providing services.”
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