With Illinois’ COVID-19 deaths still rising sharply, Gov. JB Pritzker announced Friday the closures of public and private schools across the state for the remainder of this school year to help slow the statewide creep of the coronavirus.
“My decisions are hard ones, but they follow the science, and the science says our students can't go back to their normal routine,” Pritzker said at his daily COVID-19 briefing. “Therefore I am suspending in-person learning for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.”
The governor said amassing students in classrooms and resuming extracurricular activities and other familiar educational routines across the state would threaten any gains the state has made so far in limiting COVID-19.
“That routine is a source of joy for so many,” Pritzker said. “But it also opens up a nearly limitless opportunity for potential COVID-19 infection at a time when our health care workers, our researchers, our scientists and our first responders need us to bend the curve downward.”
The move, which also applies to parochial schools operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and other private schools across Illinois, marks the third statewide school closure order bearing the governor’s name.
There are nearly 2 million public school students and about 200,000 private students in Illinois. Pritzker acknowledged the very real possibility that those students could fall behind academically.
“The shutting of in-person classroom time also risks a drop in instructional time, an extended window in which students can potentially experience summer learning loss, and an educational landscape in which some districts have more experience with remote learning than others,” he said.
Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said she supports the governor’s decision.
“It isn't what any of us want, but it's what we have to do,” Griffin said. The state’s other teachers union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, also put out a statement endorsing the decision.
Pritzker’s first order on March 13 darkened classrooms until the end of last month. On March 31, Pritzker then extended the order until the end of April, noting the state still had not weathered the worst of this wave of the pandemic.
His decision to cancel in-person classes entirely comes as 27 states have already ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the academic year, affecting approximately 25 million public school students, according to a count by Education Week. This includes the neighboring states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Missouri. To date, school closures have impacted at least 55.1 million students.
For many school districts, Pritzker’s decision means another three to six weeks of remote learning from home, as many school districts end in late May or early June. The academic year for Chicago Public Schools’ 355,000 students wraps up on June 18.
Chicago Public Schools has only had 108 days of in-school instruction this year because it also had a 11-day strike in October. Schools are supposed to be in session 180 days. The state, however, will count the days off because of the pandemic as school days.
Chicago Public Schools CPS CEO Janice Jackson called the closure a “difficult, but necessary decision.”
“From our youngest learners to our high school seniors, I’m sorry,” Jackson said in a statement. “I’m sorry you won’t be taking part in the competitions, performances, and milestones you deserve. But while it will not be the same, we will do our best to celebrate, support and lift you up during this difficult time.”
The school district noted it will continue to distribute free meals to families. It implemented a remote learning plan that started Monday. Schools are in the process of distributing computers so as many students as possible can participate online. Students can also pick up paper packets.
Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward) called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to provide municipal broadband to give all students internet access. Even though several companies have offered months of free internet to low-income families, teachers have found that some of their students still are not connected.
The Chicago Teachers Union applauded Pritzker’s decision while acknowledging the hardship it creates for parents and teachers. CTU President Jesse Sharkey said it is especially challenging for teachers of students with special needs or who are learning English. Sharkey said the city and state needs to keep promises to get computers and internet access to students.
Griffin, of the Illinois Educators Association, said there’s no substitute for in-person instruction, and this time has shown the inequity in education across districts. Griffin said as the school closure continues those gaps must be addressed.
The next big question across Illinois is whether schools can and will hold summer classes to begin to make up for some of the learning time lost. A study released last week suggests significant academic impacts, with more of a drop off in math than in reading.
Whether schools can actually open in late summer and early fall is also a question, given the concerns about a possible second wave of COVID-19 infections.
Many parents weren’t surprised by the announcement.
Joyce Hagen-McIntosh is a mother of two in west suburban La Grange. She said the remote learning has been challenging for her two sons, who are six and eight. One has autism.
“It’s another layer of navigating,” Hagen-McIntosh said. “I really do need to provide some structure and find some way to move ahead for the rest of this school year.”
The governor’s decision comes as he and state public health officials have said Illinois is seeing COVID-19-related hospitalizations beginning to slow their acceleration and the use of ventilators by virus-stricken patients drop off high points.
Despite that glimmer of optimism, the state on Friday announced 1,842 new cases, which is a daily record influenced in part by a ramping up of testing for the virus.
Pritzker said 62 additional people died statewide in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total death toll to 1,134. The state’s first COVID-19 fatality was confirmed exactly one month ago.
The worst is still not over, he said.
“We have not peaked,” the governor said. “We are in a period where … you can see it bending, this curve, because we know what the projections were had we not put the stay-at-home-order in place: much worse than where we are today. And we can see the slowing of the development of people ending up in hospitals, and in ICU beds and on ventilators. And remember the fatalities are often a lagging indicator.”
The governor’s action on schools Friday left unclear his plans for extending the stay-at-home order beyond its April 30 expiration or allowing more businesses to reopen. On Thursday, Pritzker announced Illinois was joining six other Midwestern states to phase in a reopening of the region’s economy.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold. Sarah Karp and Susie An cover education for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @WBEZeducation. Kate Grossman contributed to this report.