Dane County parents upset over online instruction at schools that were intending to hold classes in-person are speaking out following a recent emergency order by the local health department, which restricted all public and private schools to virtual instruction for grades 3-12 because of COVID-19.
Parents and their children carried signs outside city hall Wednesday night before a virtual meeting of the Board of Health. Speakers at the meeting told members of the board how their children cried because they missed their teachers, and some schools said they spent "countless hours and thousands of dollars to prepare for opening."
"To have this blanket order is heartbreaking to me and to our families," said Liz Goldman, principal at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Waunakee. "Public health officials need to realize we are not only looking at the physical health of our children and families. We need to look at the emotional and social health too."
Dane County faces legal challenges over the order, which has already been amended since it was issued Aug. 21. The amendment allows children with special needs to receive in-person instruction.
Discussing the matter during a Facebook event Tuesday, one father of a child with Down syndrome said parents are being asked to do multiple jobs they aren't trained for, such as speech and occupational therapy and special education.
Other parents were concerned that schools won’t reopen quickly enough because of strict criteria the health department has set to prevent spread of the new coronavirus. Public Health Madison & Dane County has certain metrics that have to be met before grades 3-12 return to classrooms.
When the issue was ordered, the health department was averaging 42 cases per day. In order to consider reopening grades 3-5 for in-person instruction, Dane County officials want a 14-day average of 39 cases per day for four consecutive weeks.
To reopen grades 6-12 for in-person instruction, Dane County officials would like to have a 14-day average of 19 cases or fewer per day for four consecutive weeks. Should Dane County’s average number of cases per day over a two-week period increase above 54, it would consider closing all schools to in-person instruction.
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Dane County health officials said their criteria for when they might open local schools was determined using guidance from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Harvard Global Health Institute, and the Minnesota Department of Public Health, among others.
The decision to shutter classrooms for grades 3-12 and switch to virtual instruction comes as college-age students return to the UW-Madison campus. Parents of younger children who want classes to resume in-person are concerned a possible spike in COVID-19 cases among college students will drive up the number of positive cases in Dane County, extending how long it might take before elementary, middle and high schools are able to reopen.
On its website, Dane County’s health department states that "UW-Madison is not an island. An increase in cases on campus may impact the surrounding community, including populations at higher risk of exposure (e.g., essential workers) and populations more vulnerable to severe COVID illness (e.g., people of color, people aged 65 and older, and people with chronic conditions)."
Public Health Madison & Dane County does not have authority over UW-Madison, which is a state entity overseen by the Board of Regents.
Many Dane County schools, including Madison Metropolitan School District, had previously announced they'd start school virtually. However, many religious schools and a few public schools were planning to offer in-person instruction before the emergency order.
Reaction to the order was swift from bishop of Madison, Donald Hyling, who said in a letter posted on Twitter that he was "extraordinarily disappointed" and urged people to contact their local officials.
Parents and religious schools are seeking help from the courts, asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to void the local health order. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has filed a petition on their behalf. Another group led by St. Ambrose Academy is also seeking to have the order tossed out.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s response to the petition filed by St. Ambrose Academy acknowledged the frustration of families and their children who want to attend school in-person, but said the health order does not restrict religious freedom, as the brief says; rather, it was designed to move Dane County forward.
"It does this by, among other things, treating all schools the same based on metrics that allow for phasing in of school classes beginning with K-2nd for in-person instruction first," Parisi said in a court filing. "Health Order No. 9 reflects a proper exercise of the statutory power to do what is reasonable and necessary for the prevention and suppression of disease."