A group of parents and private religious schools is asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to void a Dane County order barring in-person school for most students, saying the order issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic infringes on the right to worship and to an education.
“This case challenges the authority of one unelected bureaucrat to upend the education plans of thousands of students and families and their schools located throughout Dane County via the stroke of a pen,” asserts the petition filed Wednesday by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty on behalf of 14 parents, five religious schools, and interest groups for school vouchers and religious and independent schools.
Issued Friday and effective Monday, Emergency Order No. 9 bars schools from offering in-person instruction for grades 3 through 12 until the county meets certain benchmarks showing the coronavirus is better contained. In effect, it applies almost exclusively to private schools because public schools in Dane County had already decided to start the year online for almost all students in almost every grade.
In the WILL petition and a separate one filed on behalf of Fitchburg mother Sara Lindsey James on Tuesday, attorneys argue that Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, doesn’t have authority under state law to close schools and that the order runs counter to the decision the high court made in May striking down the statewide stay-at-home order.
In the May case, the court did not strike down the part of the stay-at-home order closing schools, but that order only closed them through the end of last school year. James’ petition argues state law allowing the state’s public health director to close schools in a public health emergency does not extend to local public health directors such as Heinrich.