Updated at 9:20 p.m.
Gov. JB Pritzker made the call Friday afternoon to close all public and private schools in Illinois for two weeks, joining other states across the country that have already moved to shutter schools amid coronavirus fears.
“This is the right thing to do,” Pritzker said, one day after he had said he wouldn’t close schools.
The statewide closure will take place from March 17-30. He said he believes two weeks is the right time frame but that the state will be monitoring.
This renders moot the controversial decision made locally to keep Chicago Public Schools open. Some 355,000 students who attend the school district’s 642 traditional and charter schools will now be at home. It’s the second prolonged closing for most of the students who also were out for 11 days this fall due to a teacher’s strike.
Already in Illinois, 112 school districts and 68 individual schools, affecting 308,000 public and private school students, had announced plans to shut down, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. The closure announcements mostly began on Thursday and multiplied exponentially all day Friday.
Still, the majority of schools had yet to announce a shutdown. There are nearly 2 million public school students in Illinois.
On Friday, Pritzker’s administration also announced 14 new COVID-19 cases involving people who tested positive at the state’s public health laboratory. That jump is the single largest daily increase since the state reported its first confirmed case on Jan. 24 and a doubling of the daily number of new cases reported on Thursday.
In seven weeks, the state has gone from zero confirmed cases to 46, with Friday’s total representing 30 percent of all known instances of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Of the latest confirmed cases, nine are Chicagoans, four from Cook County and one from Lake County, ranging between the 20s and the 90s in age.
Of all cases, 30% are travel-associated, roughly 41% involve contact with other known COVID-19 cases, with the remaining 29% lacking any clear connection and perhaps the result of community spread, according to a statement from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
State public-health authorities said the “vast majority” of the cases are recovering, 94% are in isolation either at home or at a hospital. To date, no one in Illinois has died from the illness.
Why close schools?
The decision to close schools was announced one day after Pritzker said he would not shutter schools.
“By taking these actions now we really hope to slow and limit widespread transmission,” said Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Pritzker said he changed his mind, in consultation with experts, school districts, as part of the state’s “larger social distancing efforts.” He also said after looking at the science and the large number of students who are at schools that have already announced closures — 291,000 as of Friday afternoon — he decided this was the “right thing to do.”
He also said he took into consideration the fact that was telling adults not to gather in large groups but “we’re telling kids that you can bump up against each other in the hallway.”
Pritzker said he was in conversation all day with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who this morning was still defending the decision to keep Chicago Public Schools open along with the city’s public health commissioner. At a later news conference, Lightfoot said she worked hand-in-hand with the governor as he made the decision to close all the state’s schools.
For the past 24 hours, there’s been a public outcry over the Chicago and state decision to stay open even after states — including Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Oregon — as well as numerous suburban school districts and dozens of private schools announced closures. Colleges and universities across the nation, including those in Illinois, have already announced a move to online learning.
While many applauded the decision, one Chicago mother said it will cause problems for low-income parents on the South and West sides. Valerie Carroll works with COFI or Community Organizing and Family Issues, an organization that trains South and West Side parents to work in schools.
“Realistically, the governor is not paying the bills,” said Carroll. “Is he going to give us money to pay our rent? Even if the kids are only off two weeks, that is two weeks without pay. So is he going to pay the rent for all the parents who can’t afford to take off two weeks?”
Schools CEO Janice Jackson said schools will be food distribution sites starting Tuesday. Libraries will also be open as will some Chicago Park District facilities. Learning packets will be distributed to students in school on Monday. Schools will be closed for a deep clean.
Pritzker said no school district will see its school funding cut as a result of these closures. Staff will still be paid. He also said the plan is to continue to distribute two meals a day for students eligible for free and reduced lunch through delivery and parent pickup options.
Lightfoot insisted most of Friday there were good reasons to keep schools open. Her office sent out a fact sheet from the CDC that said science didn’t warrant it. Among other things, it said the “available modeling data indicate that early, short-to medium-closures do not impact the epi curve of COVID-19.”
She and the city’s public health commissioner stressed that the risk of COVID-19 spreading among kids is low.
Lightfoot and Jackson have said they are deeply worried about students whose parents can’t take off work and those who are dependent on breakfast and lunch at the school. About 76 percent of students in Chicago Public Schools are low income.
But Friday afternoon the Chicago Teachers Union called for an immediate closure of all city public schools, including charter schools. The union had previously only called for schools to be closed on election day, Tuesday, March 17, because many schools are used as polling places.
They said the evolving situation prompted them to call for the schools to close.
The initial decision not to close Chicago schools also prompted furor among teachers and parents on social media. Many said they were upset the governor called for all events with more than 250 people to be canceled, but yet would allow schools to stay open.
The Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which works with low-income, mostly Latino families, used its Facebook page to call on Chicago Public Schools to close and for the city to ensure that low-income families get some financial support.
City Colleges of Chicago also announced Friday night that it will suspend in-person classes for the week starting March 16. Classes will resume online March 23 and then City Colleges will recess for a regularly scheduled spring break the following week. This decision comes after backlash from faculty and students against an earlier decision to continue in-person classes for two more weeks before going online.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.
Reporters Dave McKinney and Kate McGee contributed to this story.