Dane Co. digging in for a fight over in-person class ban

Dane Co. Executive Joe Parisi holds news conference on August 10, 2020.
Dane Co. Executive Joe Parisi holds news conference on August 10, 2020.(WMTV-TV)
Published: Aug. 26, 2020 at 4:14 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Dane County officials are hunkering down for a fight over its health department’s order barring in-person instructions in local schools, including religious and private ones, for most students.

“The order for schools is lawful and we will defend it vigorously, because the reason Public Health put it in place is worth fighting for—the health of our kids and community,” Dane Co. Executive Joe Parisi stated.

Parisi and Public Health Madison & Dane Co. drew their line in the sand Wednesday after a second lawsuit was filed in as many days challenging the order. Parisi noted that COVID-19 cases among children in the U.S. has nearly doubled and doctors still aren’t sure what the lifelong ramifications are for children if they contract the virus.

This latest case, which was taken straight to the state Supreme Court, was filed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) on behalf of eight families, five schools, and two other organizations.

WILL argues state law doesn’t allow county health departments to prohibit in-person classes. Further, the plaintiffs claim Dane Co. health department hasn’t shown why the ban is needed, especially because it has used other standards to determine other regulations.

“This order injected unnecessary chaos, confusion, and frustration into the lives of children, families, and school leaders preparing to navigate a difficult new school year,” WILL President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg said.

In his response to the suit, Parisi acknowledged “some sacrifice” built into the order, however he said it is focused on what county officials should be focused on, i.e. public safety. He credited their decisive actions for helping bring down the rates of infection.

The plaintiffs also claim the order violates the rights of the students’ parents in two different ways. First, it infringes on their constitutional right to decide how their children will be raised and taught, WILL claims. Secondly, the suit asserts that the parents’ religious rights are violated because they chose to send their children to a private school to receive religious instruction.

One of the parents represented in the lawsuit, Chris Truitt, of DeForest, said his son not being able to attend his sophomore year of high school is detrimental to his academic growth.

“Our son struggles with a learning disorder and the lack of in-person instruction is a barrier for his development,” he explained.

On Tuesday, a Fitchburg parent also asked the high court to strike down Executive Order #9. In her lawsuit, Sarah James also contended PHMDC does not have the authority to issue such an edict and it also violated her religious rights by doing so.

James stated she believes it is essential they receive a faith-based education, and that such education happens in-person and “together with others as part of the body of Christ.” The order, the lawsuit states, stops students from going to any private, in-person, faith-based school.

Her suit targeted PHMDC Public Health Officer Janel Heinrich directly. The latest case lists Heinrich as well as her agency as the defendants.

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