OLYMPIA — Schools in Washington state will remain physically closed for the remainder of the school year while more than 1.2 million public and private K-12 students continue distance learning at least until mid-June due to the coronavirus outbreak, officials said Monday.
Schools have been shut statewide since March 17 and were initially scheduled to reopen April 27. That was extended until June 19 — when the spring term ends — and schools were encouraged to continue distance learning.
The order also asks schools to start planning for a potential expansion of the closures into the summer and fall, though Gov. Jay Inslee said officials would explore whether it was possible to bring students back for graduation later in the year.
Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal said the decision was tough, but the risks of returning students to school too soon were high due to the pandemic.
“A rush back to school puts significant risk in learning continuity that at this time would not be better than the model we are developing and advancing at a distance,” he said. “We do not want that curve to suddenly spike up because we acted too quickly to come back.”
The closure of schools creates challenges in the area of equity for some students, Inslee said, explaining there will be limited on-site options in certain circumstances, such as students learning English as a second language, and for students with disabilities, as long as social distancing and proper hygiene practices are followed.
“We know that distance learning could never replace the learning and other benefits that students get from attending school in person,” Inslee said. “But this unprecedented health emergency demands that we take this step, both for the sake of our children and for our community.”
Last week, Inslee extended orders to keep non-essential businesses closed and most of the state’s residents home through May 4, saying the measures must remain in place an additional month in order to minimize the spread of the virus. Violation of the order is a misdemeanor, but the governor’s office has said the goal is education, not to arrest people.
There have been 372 COVID-19 deaths and more than 8,380 cases in the state. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Officials have been cautiously optimistic that the state’s strategies have helped avoid the levels of infections and deaths seen in other states. On Sunday, Inslee said the state will return more than 400 of the 500 ventilators it has received from the federal government so the equipment can go to New York and other states hit harder by the coronavirus.
Washington received 500 ventilators last month from the Strategic National Stockpile.