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Seattle School Superintendent On Her District's Coronavirus Response

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ten people now have died from the coronavirus in Washington state. The situation has led more than a dozen schools there to close to try to stop the spread of the disease. Seattle Public Schools, however, remains open. Superintendent Denise Juneau joins us now.

Can you talk about your decision not to close schools, as some of those in your region have done?

DENISE JUNEAU: Sure. There is a great deal of concern throughout our community, and that includes our school community. And, of course, the health and well-being of our students and staff are our top priorities. So we've had many meetings with King County Public Health, the Seattle public health, to drop contingency plans.

And we'll always be nimble to modify those plans because this is an ever-evolving situation. However, we have not had any lab-confirmed cases in Seattle Public Schools as of yet. And so...

CORNISH: Though we should add here that there's been a shortage of tests for coronavirus, right? That's something the federal government's trying to alleviate. So...

JUNEAU: Yes.

CORNISH: It could mean that people have the disease, but it's not confirmed. How are you approaching that prospect?

JUNEAU: Well, we are asking parents. If they see that their child is sick or they want to keep their student home, they are free to do so. We will excuse those absences. We don't want parents to be fearful to send their kids to school. And we have taken precautions, such as stopping all field trip travel out of state, any staff travel out of state. That includes international trips.

We have increased our cleaning of the common areas. And so we're doing as much as we can to be preventative. We're providing additional time for students to wash hands and make sure that we're staying clean.

CORNISH: Our member station in Seattle, KUOW, has actually spoken with teachers who say that the schedule's already really intense. Kids don't have that much time for handwashing before meals, even - especially when there are so few sinks in the schools. How are you dealing with those practical issues?

JUNEAU: Right. That's why we are asking our custodial staff - and they've been great - at continuing to clean and allowing extra time, asking school leaders to allow extra time for handwashing to occur and to make sure that students are taking all the preventative measures - and staff - to try to prevent the spread, if it happens.

CORNISH: Other comments from parents - that they're being asked to supply schools with things like hand sanitizer. Is it a situation where the district does not have enough of its own?

JUNEAU: We just received, as a district, a lot of supplies, and so we're getting that distribution out across the district. But, of course, we are also asking our PTAs if they are delivering disinfectants to schools or hand sanitizer. We just now got a supply of cleaning supplies, and so we'll be getting those out to our schools.

CORNISH: What's the benchmark you would consider hitting for long-term closure? I mean, as we said, there are other school systems that are closing. What are you looking for that would force your hand?

JUNEAU: Well, right now, the advice from King County Public Health is that when there is a confirmed case in one of our schools, that we would quarantine that person for 14 days and do the deep cleaning. And then we'd have to work with our public health department to figure out the duration of that closure because every context will be different. For example...

CORNISH: But just to interrupt, I sense you have a real reluctance to close.

JUNEAU: We would like to make sure that students continue their learning experience in our schools for as long as possible.

CORNISH: Do you have any plan in case of a long-term closure?

JUNEAU: Well, we just have to continue focusing on our partnership with public health officials.

CORNISH: So there's not some version of online learning or anything like that. You're not thinking...

JUNEAU: So...

CORNISH: ...In those terms yet.

JUNEAU: We are asking teachers to prepare packets of learning. In our district - because it's a large urban district, online learning would - there would be some equity issues with that because there would be some students who may not have access to technology at home, Internet. And so we are going to go old-school and put together learning packets and make sure that those are available - should there have to be a closure, that there's access to some type of learning at home.

CORNISH: That's Denise Juneau. She's superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

Thank you for your time.

JUNEAU: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.