Dane Co. urges schools to keep 3rd-12th graders home as it makes its case in court

Published: Sep. 15, 2020 at 5:52 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Dane Co. health officials want schools to continue conducting classes online for most of their students regardless of a recent state Supreme Court decision granting an injunction on an order that prevented third through ninth graders from attending in-person classes.

Both Public Health Madison & Dane Co. and Dane Co. Executive Joe Parisi issued pleas in separate statements, noting that the health department filed its response to the Justices ruling Tuesday. PHMDC stated it is “hopeful” the statutes cited in its filing, which were not previously considered by the Court, will lead to the injunction being lifted.

Meanwhile, Parisi also noted the new filing, but made his appeal to schools based on what is best for the students and the public’s safety.

“While the legal process will answer questions relating to the law, there is no ambiguity as to what is best for public health - people need to socially distance and take strict precautions if we are to slow the community spread that’s occurring,” he said.

Parisi noted the surge in COVID-19 cases in Dane Co. recently, adding the region “now (has) the sad distinction of being the fastest growing communities in the country for new cases.” The increase, in fact, has pushed the average number of daily cases past the threshold where the original PHMDC order would have led health officials to consider keeping K-2 students home as well.

PHMDC told NBC15 that, even though that level has been exceeded, health officials would weigh other factors, including extent of exposure and contact tracing capacity, to determine if they should extend the order. The fact that most of the cases have affected UW students and there has been little spillover into the community has led them to conclude that younger students should not need to do anything differently.

While health officials cited the downtown cases for the drastic increase in cases recently, Parisi pointed to other counties affected by COVID-19 recently to say that this issue isn’t limited to urban areas. Earlier Tuesday, Iowa-Grant Elementary/Middle School announced it would close for the rest of the week because of unspecified coronavirus concerns.

The state Supreme Court issued the injunction on Thursday, stating that the relevant statute did not appear to give a local health official the ability to close schools, noting that a similar law encompassing state health officials' powers specifically mentioned schools while the one pertaining to local officials did not.

In its filing Tuesday, the PHMDC argued state statutes allow local health officials to do “what is reasonable and necessary for the prevention and suppression of disease.” It also references laws about public instruction and contended they do include an explicit power to close schools. In one case, the filing states the legislature amended a law to add the word local to health officer.

“The plain language is unmistakable that a local health officer has the power to close schools,” the filing claimed.

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