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Parents Criticize Washington State School Efforts To Protect Against Coronavirus

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Washington state, at least 13 schools were closed yesterday as part of an effort to try and prevent the spread of coronavirus. An outbreak in that area has already killed six people. Ann Dornfeld of member station KUOW has been following this story.

ANN DORNFELD, BYLINE: Outside John Stanford International School in Seattle, mom Sarah Hein (ph) says she's been looking at COVID-19 like the flu and taking the usual precautions.

SARAH HEIN: It's important to be mindful about it, but at the same time, I think it's also - can be damaging to start a panic among people and shutting everything down simultaneously.

DORNFELD: In Seattle Public Schools, some parents and staff are concerned that the district was not well-prepared to slow the spread of the virus. One teacher says custodians only visit her classroom every three days and don't routinely sanitize surfaces. The teacher didn't want her name used out of fear of upsetting school administrators. Even though frequent and thorough handwashing is being stressed as a key prevention strategy, she says the focus in low-income schools like hers is on maximizing instructional time, which leaves little wiggle room in the schedule.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: That includes not having time to have students wash their hands before meals.

DORNFELD: Seattle Public Schools says it plans to step up classroom sanitation and may change schedules to allow for more handwashing. With many more cases likely on the way, King County Health Department officials say there is no single guideline for when to close schools or for how long. They say with so much unknown about the virus and how it's spread, the risks are still unclear. Northeast of Seattle in the North Shore School District, Superintendent Michelle Reid says nearly one-third of all students stayed home from school Monday. School is canceled Tuesday so staff can train for and plan how did teach classes online in the event of long-term closures. Reid says the district plans to provide students computers and Wi-Fi hotspots if they don't have them at home.

MICHELLE REID: I certainly acknowledge that we have those resources that maybe other districts don't. But we're going to try this and see if we'll be able to continue education, whether it's in the schoolhouse or on a remote site.

DORNFELD: What technology cannot solve is backup child care for low-income families if schools are canceled for weeks or months.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Dornfeld in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.