Gov. J.B. Pritzker is ordering the closure of all public and private K-12 schools across the state, including Chicago Public Schools, starting Tuesday, March 17. It’s the largest closure to date related to the spread of the novel coronavirus in Illinois, where 46 people have so far tested positive for the illness.
Schools are scheduled to reopen March 31, Pritzker said at a news conference Friday afternoon.
“Here in Illinois we are doing everything we can to keep transmission rates as low as possible to flatten the curve for our health care workers and first responders, for our most vulnerable populations and older citizens,” Pritzker said. “It’s with that in mind that we have determined we will close all K-12 schools. … This is the right thing to do to protect our students and their teachers and schoolworkers and parents.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who at a press conference Friday morning said CPS schools would remain open “at this time,” held a second press conference later to address Pritzker’s executive order.
“In light of this order, the best place for our students to be is at home,” she said Friday evening. “I’m asking resident to remain in your homes. Of course, I know that’s not possible for everyone. CPS serves thousands of children who’re experiencing homelessness or housing instability.”
Schools will be open Monday, Pritzker said, so that teachers have a chance to develop lesson plans and meet with students. During the temporary closure, teachers and school personnel will continue to be paid, according to Illinois State Board of Education Superintendent Carmen Ayala.
Lightfoot is calling on the business community to accommodate workers who are CPS parents and may not have access to paid sick leave.
“No parent should be forced to choose between staying home with a child or earning a paycheck. That is why my team is finalizing our contingency plan to meet the needs of our children and families,” Lightfoot said. “In Chicago, we know that schools are more than just places of learning.”
The Illinois State Board of Education will be fully staffed over the weekend and during the closure period to work through issues and challenges in each district, according to Pritzker.
While children are less susceptible to COVID-19 than other populations, including the elderly, Pritzker said closing schools is a “critical part” of large social distancing efforts to stop the spread of the virus. “Having the general public stay home one day at a time will have a massive effect on bending this curve, and that means lives saved,” he said.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike echoed that sentiment, saying children could unknowingly pass the virus to people who are more likely to suffer severe symptoms. “Closing schools will not only help students and the teachers ... but also helps reduce the spread of the virus on a larger scale as it takes one community setting out of the equation,” she said. “By taking these actions now we really hope to slow and limit widespread transmission, which is essential to ensuring our health care system is not overwhelmed as the disease progresses through our state.”
Officials urged people refrain from purchasing face masks and gloves, so health care workers who need them have access to them. They also reiterated there aren’t enough tests for everyone and that not everyone is going to need one.
“We have to prioritize those who are sick enough for the hospital and our elderly residents and individuals who are otherwise immunocompromised. We will all be better off if our health care workers have first access to those tests and to all personal protective equipment,” Pritzker said. “Please leave the masks for those who need them. It’ll protect you more in the long run.”
During the closure, all schools must have at least one staff member present during regular school hours in case a student needs a safe place to stay, according to Pritzker.
On Thursday, ISBE was granted a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue providing two meals a day to students who qualify for free and reduced lunches through delivery and parent pick-up for the duration of the closure, according to Pritzker.
Pritzker’s announcement came just hours after President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, a move that will free up $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak.
Earlier Friday, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced all of its schools in Cook and Lake counties will temporarily close starting Monday. Dozens of school districts in the Chicago area have already canceled classes and implemented electronic learning due to fears over the spread of COVID-19.
Coronaviruses are respiratory viruses that range from the common cold to more serious illnesses, like SARS and MERS. There is no treatment or vaccine for the virus.
Health officials encourage people to take daily preventive measures to slow the spread of the virus, such as frequent handwashing, routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces and objects, and covering coughs and sneezes.
Most importantly, officials say, stay home if you’re sick.
Additional reporting by Brandis Friedman.