Gov. JB Pritzker has closed all schools for the remainder of the school year to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus in Illinois.


Calling schools and the school environment — where more than 2 million children across the state attend classes each day — "a 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," Pritzker announced the long-awaited decision on Friday during his daily news conference addressing the state’s efforts against the deadly coronavirus pandemic.


Pritzker’s order suspends all in-person instruction at all public and private schools for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.


Pritzker said his team and the Illinois State Board of Education will be working with school districts that are struggling with the transition to distance learning.


"I know that many have felt that this was inevitable," Pritzker said. "Trust me when I say that this was not a decision I made lightly.


"The importance of our schools and our in-person school days is not just a question of tradition and sentimentality, as essential as those things are," he said. "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."


Pritzker reiterated that his decision to close schools for the rest of the year was based on his priority to save lives.


As of Friday, 1,134 people had died from COVID-19 in Illinois. There have been 27,575 confirmed cases.


Pritzker’s first stay-at-home order went into effect at 5 p.m. on March 21. He ordered the schools to close on March 17.


Both orders were set to expire April 7 and were extended through April 30. Pritzker did not announce any changes or updates to his stay-at-home order on Friday.


On Thursday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced that Wisconsin schools would remain closed through the end of the school year and that stay-at-home restrictions would remain in place through May 26.


Evers’ announcement came on the same day that governors across the Midwest agreed to partner on decisions such as when to reopen their states. Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, Kentucky and Indiana are members of the partnership.


State Superintendent of Schools Carmen Ayala praised Illinois school districts for their innovation and flexibility during a time of crisis.


"This pandemic has altered the fabric of how we teach, how we learn and how we connect," Ayala said. "But it has not shaken the core of what our schools do. And that is to take care of Illinois’ children and prepare them for what is next."


Ayala said Illinois schools will continue to serve their communities and support area families throughout the closure with an emphasis on social and emotional needs, nutrition, technology and other resources.


The state will soon be issuing "transition guidance" aimed at helping schools in addressing learning loss and additional social and emotional needs when students return to the classroom, she said.


"Be assured, Illinois students are in good hands." Pritzker said. "Our teachers and our administrators are doing what they do best. They’re stepping up to ensure that every child in this state receives the education that they deserve."


Corina Curry: ccurry@rrstar.com; @corinacurry