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Illinois governor orders schools closed due to coronavirus

March 14, 2020 GMT
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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, along with elected and health officials give their daily update to Novel Coronavirus in Illinois, Friday, March 13, 2020. (Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, along with elected and health officials give their daily update to Novel Coronavirus in Illinois, Friday, March 13, 2020. (Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

CHICAGO (AP) — Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday ordered the closing of every school in the state until March 30 starting Tuesday amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus.

Other states and large cities shut down schools this week over COVID-19 concerns, but officials in Illinois and Chicago resisted until Friday. Pritzker announced his decision in Chicago where more than 355,000 public school students will be affected. Statewide, nearly 2 million students will not be returning to the classroom.

Pritzker acknowledged that the decision will deeply affect students who receive meals at school and parents or family members who are unable to work from home. The Democrat, who has been particularly critical of the federal government’s response to the spread of COVID-19 cases, said he still believes closing schools is necessary to limit the virus’ spread.

“None of the choices that we have had to make over the last week have been easy or simple,” Pritzker said. “All of these choices have cascading effects.”

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Illinois officials on Friday also reported 14 additional cases of people who had tested positive for the virus, bringing the state’s total number of COVID-19 cases to 46. State officials are focused on trying to limit transmission in Illinois and hope that broader actions will help, said Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike.

“We would rather be overcautious than put the health of our most vulnerable citizens at risk,” Ezike said.

A day earlier, Pritzker mandated the cancellation of events of more than 1,000 people and encouraged organizers of events with at least 250 attendees to cancel on their own.

“Having the general public stay home one day at a time will have a massive effect on bending this curve,” he said on Friday. “And that means lives saved.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

The school cancellations are the latest blow to Chicago families, where students were kept out of classes earlier in the school year by an 11-day strike by the district’s more than 21,000 teachers. About 70% of the district’s students are eligible for meals at school based on their families’ incomes, making them particularly vulnerable to disruptions.

Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Janice Jackson told reporters Friday evening that all district schools and offices will be closed Tuesday for everyone with the exception of essential personnel.

“The district will be providing meals to all of our students and families,” Jackson said. “All of our CPS locations will be food distribution centers beginning on Tuesday, March 17 at 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. every single day throughout the closure. Families will be able to pick up three days’ worth of food at any given time for each child that lives in their household.”

Learning packets for students will be available Monday.

Full-time and regularly scheduled district staff will be paid throughout the closure, Jackson said. Most central office staff will be asked to work remotely.

Pritzker said state officials are working to plan food delivery to students’ homes or to neighborhood facilities around the state. He also said the state has granted access to unemployment benefits to people unemployed due to concerns about the coronavirus.

State Supt. Carmen Ayala encouraged school districts to provide activities that students can do at home but said administrators for each district have “full autonomy” to make their own decisions.

The closing of K-12 schools comes the same week that many large universities in Illinois suspended in-person classes due to concerns about the virus, including the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois, DePaul, Northwestern and Illinois State universities.

On Thursday, the Illinois High School Association limited attendance at the remaining games in this year’s 2020 boys basketball tournament and other sporting events.

Dozens of school districts and schools had canceled on their own earlier in the day, including the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“In light of (Pritzker’s order) the best place for our students to be is at home,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who also appealed Friday to the city’s business community to work with — and be flexible with — employees who are parents of students.

“These are not ordinary times and we need employers to be in partnership with their employees,” Lightfoot said.

Under new workforce policies, city workers impacted by COVID-19 will be given additional paid time off and permitted to work from home when possible, she added.

“No parent should be forced to pick between staying home with a child and earning a paycheck,” Lightfoot said.

In addition to schools, other closures announced Friday in Illinois include casinos. Starting Monday, the state’s 10 casinos must suspend gaming operations for 14 days, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.

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This story has been corrected to show that the Archdiocese of Chicago is closing 170 schools with 51,000 students, not 205 schools with 71,000 students.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Associated Press writer Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this story.