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Court: Wisconsin health departments can’t close schools

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MADISON (WKOW) - The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that an order by Dane County public health to close schools for in-person learning was illegal, according to an opinion filed Friday morning.

It was a 4-3 decision to overturn the order by Public Madison Dane County saying director Janel Heinrich did not have the authority to close schools. The four conservative judges on the bench voted in favor of overturning the order.

Heinrich issued Emergency Order #9 on August 21, 2020, just three days before the start of the new school year. It closed all public and private schools in the county for in-person instruction in grades 3-12. It did provide an exemption for kids K-2 as long as an alternative option was available.

The opinion stated the order explained the rationale for closure saying "[t]his remains a critical time for Dane County to decrease the spread of COVID-19, keep people healthy, and maintain a level of transmission that is manageable by health care and public systems." But it also points out that the order also acknowledged that a number of systematic reviews have found that school-aged children contract COVID at lower rates than older populations" and that "[o]utbreaks and clusters among cases aged 5-17 have been rare."

The opinion also points out the order did allow all higher education institutions "to determine policies and practices for safe operation" and to keep open their student dormitories so long as they continue to enact "strict policies that ensure safe living conditions."

According to the opinion, a parent of two children at Our Redeemer Lutheran in Madison filed a petition challenging the lawfulness of the order.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction in September. The court then heard oral arguments in December.

According to the opinion, "Heinrich's Order violates the Petitioners' fundamental constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, it cannot stand."

Heinrich released a statement Friday morning responding to the ruling.

Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that local health officers cannot close schools within their jurisdictions. We are extremely disappointed in the court’s decision, which has much further reaching implications than just this current pandemic. This decision hinders the ability of local health officers in Wisconsin to prevent and contain public health threats for decades to come.

This ruling means that under Wis. Stats. Sec. 252.03 we are no longer able to contain a measles, pertussis (whooping cough), or flu outbreak in a school. This ruling impedes our ability to respond to any disease that might impact students, teachers, and school staff, and impacts family and friends beyond the walls of the school. Unnecessary, preventable illness may certainly occur as a result of this ruling.

Despite this ruling, Public Health Madison & Dane County will continue to provide guidance and recommendations for school districts in the county and will continue using all available tools to slow the spread of disease.

Janel Heinrich
Director, Public Health Madison & Dane County

You can read the full opinion below:

SupremeCourtOpinionDaneCounty

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Associated Press

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