Illinois’ more than 2.2 million public and private school students will be staying home after Gov. J.B. Pritzker took the extraordinary step Friday of ordering the closure of the state’s schools in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The decision, making Illinois the eighth state to do so, comes after days of steadfast resistance from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to close the Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third largest public school district, serving more than 350,000 students.
Schools are set to close Tuesday through March 30, a move Pritzker said was a “critical part” of the effort to mitigate the damage done by the rapidly spreading coronavirus, known as COVID-19. State health officials announced 14 new confirmed cases Friday, 13 of which are in Chicago or Cook County. There are now 46 cases in Illinois.
“To be clear, I understand the gravity of this action, and what it means for every community in our state,” Pritzker said. “It will have a massive effect on bending this curve, and that means lives saved.
“I know a lot of people are wondering, ‘Why schools,’ when we know that children seem to be less susceptible to COVID-19 than other populations,” the governor said. “But we have teachers, parents and the larger population to consider.”
Lightfoot said at her own news conference later in the evening that, despite not appearing with Pritzker at the announcement, she has been “working hand-in-glove with the governor and his team throughout this process.
“The governor has the best interests of the entire state to consider,” the mayor said. “And while our circumstances are different than other parts of the state, the governor is of course aware of these challenges and has been working tirelessly to be a great support for the city of Chicago, and I am confident that will continue.”
Lightfoot, who just hours earlier had said CPS wouldn’t close, said her concerns center around families who rely on schools for more than education — low-income and homeless ones in particular.
To help ease the burden, schools chief Janice Jackson said CPS will provide all students and families three days’ worth of food at any given time over the next two weeks, starting Tuesday. School buildings will operate as food distribution centers from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and delivery will be available by calling (773) 553-5437.
Lightfoot said she has urged the business community to accommodate workers who need to stay home with their children. City workers, the mayor said, would be given additional time off and allowed to work from home when possible.
“No parent should be forced to pick between staying home with a child or earning a paycheck,” the mayor said. “This is an incredibly difficult and stressful time for everyone and I recognize the additional burden our CPS students and families are forced to endure.”
On a conference call with aldermen after the governor’s announcement Friday afternoon, Lightfoot said there is a “high likelihood this will be more than two weeks.” Under Pritzker’s order, students would return to school March 31. But the following week, CPS is set to start its spring vacation. Lightfoot and Jackson said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach on that break or whether any missed days will be made up.
The decision showed just how quickly the response to the virus is evolving in the state. On Thursday, Pritzker and Lightfoot said schools would stay open, with the governor also warning the decision would be evaluated on a day-by-day basis. By Friday afternoon, the decision to close them was made after talks with school superintendents and Lightfoot.
“I started to think about the kids who will go to school and who may, in fact, end up going home and bringing it home to their parents or grandparents,” Pritzker said. “And I really came to the conclusion that we’re telling adults essentially, don’t gather in large groups, but we’re telling kids that you can bump up against each other in a hallway even if you might not have an assembly.
“I will not have us look back after we are through the immediate challenges and say that we didn’t take action soon enough,” Pritzker said.
As for whether schools might be closed for longer than two weeks, the governor said, “as we approach the end of this two-week period we’ll make a decision.”
Pritzker said schools will be open Monday so that teachers can use the weekend to develop plans for the next two weeks and share them with students on Monday. Jackson and Lightfoot said families should send their kids to school Monday to hear from their teachers.
The move follows other states and cities — including Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Diego and San Francisco — that announced widespread school closures this week.
The Chicago Teachers Union had called for the closure earlier Friday.
Chicago libraries and parks are staying open, with the Park District setting up age-appropriate programming at 18 locations for families in need. As far as learning goes, Jackson said principals have been given guidance for online enrichment activities, but normal instruction will not continue. Developing a comprehensive “e-learning” plan for all 640 schools was not possible, Jackson said.
City health commissioner Allison Arwady also urged parents to choose wisely between any limited daycare options they may have. “Parents, keep this in mind, grandma’s house is probably not the best place to send your children,” since the elderly are more at risk for COVID-19.
Chicago parents shocked by closure
Parents interviewed Friday afternoon were stunned by the news the governor had canceled all schools in the state through the end of the month.Unlike during breaks or the Chicago teachers strike last fall, they won’t be able to take their kids to many of the city’s cultural assets, as the Shedd Aquarium, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Science and Industry and Adler Planetarium all announced they will be closing — along with the Lincoln Park Zoo.
“It’s definitelygoing to impact us. It’s going to be rough,” Quintella Dennis — a mother with kids in first, third and sixth grades at CPS — said while at Harrison Park in Pilsen Friday.
Dennis, who is enrolled in a nursing program at Governor State University, said she was waiting to hear what the impact would be on her studies. But even if classes were held online, she said, she would now have three children at home to take care of.
Both Dennis and her husband have relatives with health issues and they would not want to put them at risk by asking them to watch their children, they said.
The decision comes at a difficult time for Maria Morales, of Gage Park, who has a daughter in seventh grade at a CPS school and another in pre-kindergarten classes. She was laid off from her job working with a cleaning crew at McCormick Place last week.
Still, she supported closing schools, though, as she worries about older family members, as well as her children getting sick. And if she fell ill herself, that would be a huge problem.
“Who would take care of them?” she wondered.
Ashton Jones, a father of a kindergartener in Brighton Park, said the family had suspected this could happen — but they probably haven’t prepared enough.
“We’ve been trying to get ready, but this is something we didn’t want to happen,” he said. “I guess we’ll just have to home-school.”
Contributing: Fran Spielman, Lauren FitzPatrick