ARLINGTON – When Arlington public school leaders met for a special meeting March 12 to decide if and for how long to close schools amid the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, the governor made the decision for them.
Gov. Jay Inslee and the state schools superintendent announced six-week school closures for districts in Statewide.
Arlington’s school closings started March 16 and will continue until April 24.
Superintendent Chrys Sweeting said the meeting within hours transformed into a “next steps” discussion now that there was no doubt a long shut down was imminent.
“We do not have answers to the many questions, but we are having multiple conversations,” Sweeting said.
School board president Jim Weiss said, “This is our natural disaster,” adding that the district trains and prepares for earthquakes, active shooters and pandemics that never materializes, but “this is real.”
Sweeting said the goal is to keep learning on track, immune to impacts from the coronavirus pandemic as it spreads.
She said the first week was all about planning, preparing and making ready what the district needs to have in place.
“This is something we’ve never done before,” Sweeting said. “It’s unique. How do you make it equitable? We’re trying to do it thoughtfully and carefully. The bottom line is we are going to work this out together.”
Directors shared with the school board what they could about daycare for working families; continued mandated food service for students; at-home student learning; teacher planning and preparation; building maintenance and transportation; staff workload; funding; communications and getting seniors to graduation.
The school district and city are working with the Arlington Boys & Girls Club on a plan for alternative childcare to help working families and food distribution while schools are closed. Early attention is focused on providing daycare options for parents who are first responder and health care professionals.
“Nothing is in place yet,” Sweeting said. “We’re still working out all the details.”
Executive director of Operations Brian Lewis said the governor mandated that districts continue to provide food services to students during the closure, and not just those enrolled in federal free and reduced school lunch programs, but loosening federal regulations to open up to all students.
Lewis said the district can start “immediately by creating a site where we can distribute meals, both breakfast and a sack lunch to families right away.” Those sites were Presidents Elementary and Arlington High School, which both contain central kitchens for the district, and the Boys & Girls Club.
Officials would then look expand distribution sites throughout the district, and roll out bus service where needed.
Kari Henderson-Burke, executive director of Teaching and Learning, said staff are brainstorming ideas for student learning at home, aware that learning is going to look and be delivered differently over at least the next six weeks.
She said the first week sans kids in the halls is dedicated to teacher planning and preparing, with an emphasis on the “what” and the “how.”
“The ‘what’ is the most valuable learning that we want kids to engage in, what are those essentials, and the ‘how’ is what is the best manner of delivery?” Henderson-Burke said. For example, some kids may have access to technology that others don’t.
“In all likelihood, it will be a combination of technology, paper-pencil and voice-to-voice communication,” she said. Letting kids fill their backpacks with books wouldn’t hurt either.
Her department will work closely with principals and teachers to develop options for approaching learning through different means.
She emphasized that seniors will be a priority because of graduation requirements. District officials are awaiting guidance from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction regarding waivers, and modified requirements.
“We will do everything in our power to get these seniors graduated with requirements and on time,” Henderson-Burke said.
She added that state testing will probably be cancelled not just for schools in the three counties, but statewide.
School board member and retired teacher Judy Fay said there are tons of ideas for teaching and learning at home. She also suggested since teachers and support staff will be on campus, perhaps they could call homes to talk with parents or a student just to keep that connection going. “They appreciated that input.”
New school board member Mary Levesque works at Cascade Valley Hospital. She sees a lot of people come through the front door, and it worries her.
“I am very concerned that everybody is on a high stage of anxiety,” she said. “I’m seeing that children are stressed and confused, why their Disneyland trip is ruined, and they really want to go to school.”
She hopes that the teaching and learning that happens over the next six weeks will take into account the compassionate, emotional needs of the kids so worried about germs, themselves and family.
On behalf of high school counselors, another attendee as in terms of school closures and the need for “social distancing,” was there wiggle room to allow continued face-to-face communication with the most vulnerable students where school is the only stability in their life.
Sweeing made note of the idea.
Sweeting was asked why Monday was chosen as the first day of the shut down, rather than Friday or Tuesday. She said the decision seemed logical.
“It just seemed very abrupt to close Friday, and I think we need to be able to have students take home items that they need for the six weeks that they’re out,” she said.
Lewis said schools empty of students will give maintenance, grounds workers and custodian unprecedented time to keep them operational, well-maintained and safe.
“We’ll do just fine in terms of providing them with plenty of work to do, there is no end to the work we can do inside of our buildings and the grounds as well,” he said.
In the past, Lewis said, the workers have been reluctant to take vacation time because of non-stop needs in the schools; he respects that.
The lengthy coronavirus, as it turns out, might have a silver lining.
“This may be a way to relieve some of the pressure on those workers as well,” Lewis said.
Eric DeJong, executive director Human Resources, said the department’s goal is to keep staff, teachers and para-educators occupied with meaningful work.
Gina Zeutenhorst, executive director of Financial Services, said the state schools superintendent has vowed the main source of funding will continue to flow
Communications director Gary Sabol said the district has diligently kept in touch daily with families and staff about latest developments concerning COVID-19 and what is happening in schools. He anticipates next week will include many updates available through the website at www.asd.wednet.edu, social media and other communication tools.
Weiss said schools are the backbone of the community, and they are important.
“But family comes first,” he said. “Your job is second. If you’re sick, stay home. If family members are sick, stay home.”