The constant twists and turns of the COVID-19 crisis are more than South Sound schools bargained for, more than they budgeted for and certainly more than they can afford to navigate on their own.

When summer vacation ends in a few weeks, roughly 144,000 local K-12 students will start where they left off last spring — in full-time distance learning mode, under orders of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department director, Dr. Anthony Chen.

With no time to lose, the Pierce County Council is poised to approve an emergency measure Tuesday afternoon; it will distribute $5.5 million in financial assistance to schools struggling to adapt to fast-evolving pandemic conditions.  The money comes from the $158 million pot of federal CARES Act funding, approved by Congress way back in March, for which Pierce County leaders hold the purse strings.  The measure, which has bipartisan backing on the council, is appropriate for this surreal period of history.

At any other time, it might seem like a reckless bailout, devoid of the strict accountability provisions and grant-application hoops that schools usually must jump through.  But this isn’t any other time. The distribution is a welcome, if late-arriving, lifeboat for public school students, families and educators caught in the coronavirus riptide.  Even better, county officials amended the emergency ordinance so that private schools are also eligible for aid.

The first draft focused on the 17 public school districts and one tribal school that operate in Pierce County; it would reach around 135,000 students who attend public schools and around 600 who attend Chief Leschi School.   The final draft adds 33 private schools and one charter school to the mix; it will reach approximately 7,700 students who attend state-approved private schools here and another 183 enrolled at Tacoma’s last operational charter school, Summit Olympus high school.

This is a sensible revision. Private schools have been hammered hard by the COVID-19 shutdown. Some were planning to reopen campuses this fall; then Chen clarified two weeks ago that his order applied to them, too.  It’s only fair that the emergency funding apply to them as well.  Collectively, local preparations for distance learning this fall will rack up millions of dollars in unbudgeted expenses, from portable computers to broadband connections, from meal deliveries to remote mental health and special needs services.

Tacoma Public Schools officials have ordered about 11,000 laptops since March. But with around 30,000 children in the district, TPS has had to do triage, assigning devices to secondary-grade students first.  At the same time, educators must amass a stockpile of face masks, sanitation supplies and other PPE so they’re prepared for that red-letter day in the coming school year — fingers crossed, knock on wood — when Chen declares it’s safe enough for kids to return to school.

Under the county’s emergency ordinance, the base funding formula is $35 per student up to a maximum of $750,000 for the largest school districts (Tacoma and Puyallup). Several private schools with fewer than 75 students qualify for a minimum $5,000 allocation — not much, but better than nothing.  “Without the county CARES funds we would have to rely on local levy funds that could result in reductions to other services later in the school year.,” TPS spokesman Dan Voelpel told us.  Council member Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor, said last week that he sponsored the measure because education disparities “fall pretty hard on those who are in need, families who don’t have the technology at home and in some cases don’t even have access to the internet.”  While passing this measure is important, it’s only the first step. Next, county finance officials must work with school superintendents on a smooth application process and get the money out promptly.

Since COVID-19 arrived early this year, students have been treading water at best, sinking at worst. More lifeboats are needed, and fast, for public and private schools alike.