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Thousands of schools in seven states plus the District of Columbia were set to close as governors ordered statewide shutdowns, a dramatic escalation in the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcements cascaded from across the country, beginning on Thursday and into Friday, when West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) announced closure of the schools, as did school officials in Los Angeles and San Diego, shuttering the largest districts in California.

“I’m closing the schools. That’s all there is to it,” Justice said Friday. “There’s a downside to this but it is the right thing, in my mind, to do.” He did not set an end date, saying schools would be closed as long as necessary. No cases of covid-19 have been confirmed in West Virginia to date, but Justice suggested it’s only a matter of time. “We’ve got a monster that’s looming.”

Friday afternoon, Virgina joined the list of statewide closures.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) went first, announcing Thursday that all of the state’s public and private schools would close for three weeks or more. Soon after, Maryland’s governor ordered a two-week closure, followed later in the day by New Mexico. Late Thursday, statewide closures were announced in Oregon through March and in Michigan till April 5. And on Friday morning, officials in the District announced that schools would close next week, through March.

Kentucky’s governor stopped short of a mandatory order but recommended that all public and private schools cease in-person classes. “It is a big but necessary step,” Gov. Andy Beshear (D) told reporters.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) cancelled all gatherings of 250 people or more in response to rising coronavirus rates in the state on March 12. (Gov. Larry Hogan)

“We are going to do what we have to do. We are in a crisis,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said. Closures in Ohio will begin at the close of classes Monday and run through at least April 3, DeWine said. “It may be a lot longer.”

In Washington state, the governor ordered schools closed for six weeks in three counties, home to about half the state’s children.

“During times of uncertainty and risk, we all need to make tough decisions, and this is one of them,” Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said Thursday. Asked why he hasn’t closed all schools across the state, he said that could be coming in a day or two. “It’s really important not to sugarcoat the reality we are in.”

Thursday’s announcements were by far the most dramatic affecting school systems. Several individual districts have closed, but nothing close to a statewide action had been taken before now. The orders affect traditional public, charter and private schools.

With these sweeping announcements, at least 10,600 public and private schools had been closed or were scheduled to close, affecting at least 4.9 million students, according to a tally by EdWeek. Many early closures had been for just a day or two for cleaning or to give teachers time to plan for possible distance learning, but each day this week has brought more weeks-long closures.

Children do not appear to be at particular risk from the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19, but there is significant concern they could contract the virus at school and bring it home to older relatives and neighbors. There is no treatment or vaccine yet for the illness.

The U.S. Education Department responded to the growing number of closures with new guidance, easing some rules around testing requirements and clarifying responsibility for educating students with disabilities via remote instruction.

Ohio was the first to announce a statewide closure, a surprising move by a state that, with just five confirmed cases of covid-19, has not been seen as a particular hot spot.

But the state’s health department surmised that more than 100,000 people in the state would test positive. That estimate is based on an assumption that 1 percent of the population is infected.

New Mexico, which has six presumptive positive cases of ­covid-19, also acted early. Ryan Stewart, the state’s education secretary, said he had watched as other states acted only after widespread infection. “New Mexico is going to be proactive and do everything we can to prevent the potential spread of the virus,” he said.

The statewide orders were far more aggressive than what has been seen in other states, as public and private officials alike escalate their responses to the unfolding situation. Just two days ago, for instance, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced 31 new cases in the state, for a total of 173 at the time. But he ordered closures only for schools that sit inside a one-mile radius of the New Rochelle synagogue that was ground zero of the spread there.

A large number of universities have canceled classes this spring, moving courses online. But K-12 school systems have been reluctant to close for numerous reasons. Officials worry about children who depend on schools for free or subsidized breakfast and lunch. They fear that moving classes online will be difficult if not impossible, especially for students from low-income families who may not have access to computers and Internet connections.

In Washington state, Inslee said people need to understand the virus is spreading and that closing schools will create hardships, particularly for working parents who do not have child care.

“This is going to be really hard on families,” Inslee said.

His order affected about 600,000 students in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties in and around Seattle and in western Washington, an epicenter of the pandemic.

In Cleveland, the public schools have been preparing for possible closure for weeks, said Eric Gordon, chief executive of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.

He said the district already had prepared educational materials to distribute to students to work on at home and is not relying on anyone having Internet access, knowing many families do not have it. “Our materials are going to be low-tech,” he said.

Cleveland schools, with about 38,000 students, are set to distribute two meals per day to students, all of whom qualify for free meals at school, Gordon said. Students will be able to pick up bagged meals, and school buses may bring some through neighborhoods.

But he said his biggest worry is for parents who have to work and cannot be home to care for out-of-school children. That’s particularly worrisome for low-wage workers, including some whose work is critical to controlling the crisis, such as janitors and home health aides.

“That’s my biggest concern,” he said. “That’s the part I have the least control over.”