The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia has grown steadily in recent days. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Public schools and colleges across Georgia were officially shut down Wednesday for at least a couple of weeks to help curb the spread of coronavirus in the state.

Around two million students enrolled in roughly 2,300 public schools, 26 state colleges and universities and 22 technical colleges were left to continue their studies from home amid the outbreak. Most had already closed their physical classrooms by the time Gov. Brian Kemp’s orders for a statewide closure took effect Wednesday.

The state Department of Public Health reported 197 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of noon Wednesday, a number that has increased steadily in recent days as state health officials began more testing.

The governor, tapping into emergency powers the state legislature granted him Monday, ordered public schools and colleges closed until March 31. That date can be extended if he chooses.

“This measure is critical to reducing local transmission in communities across our state, and I ask Georgians to continue to follow best practices – washing their hands regularly, isolating the elderly and chronically ill and avoiding large events if possible – in the days and weeks ahead,” Kemp said in a statement.

Kemp also handed the state Department of Education and Department of Public Health authority to ensure health, nutrition and other well-being needs for students are being met, pointing to the critical role free and reduced meal programs have for many Georgia public schools.

Nearly 60% of students enrolled in public schools in Georgia are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches for the 2019-2020 school year, according to Department of Education data. Last week, state education officials gained approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to serve free meals at locations other than school grounds.

School districts across the state followed suit, opening hundreds of off-campus locations for students to grab a meal. The relaxed food restrictions mirror how free meals are served during the summer months, according to the education department.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods is also loosening requirements for year-end performance exams and assessments including the Georgia Milestones tests and teacher evaluations. Woods said he plans to ask the state Board of Education next week to suspend the requirement that Milestones tests account for 20% of a student’s final annual grade.

“The focus should be first and foremost on health and safety, then on flexible and creative ways to keep learning and growing,” Woods said in a statement. “It’s common sense: testing and accountability requirements should not place an additional burden on students, parents, and educators during this time, and they will not in Georgia.”

Meanwhile, the roughly 330,000 students attending public colleges and universities in the University System of Georgia will be taking online classes for the rest of the spring semester. Resident halls at schools including the University of Georgia, Georgia State University and Georgia Tech will be closed for all except students unable to return home or find other housing.

Courses were also shifted online through the end of March for state technical colleges, affecting roughly 100,000 students enrolled this semester.