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Wisconsin Catholic schools will challenge local COVID-19 closing order

Last-minute county order leaves parents less than 60 hours to make home-based arrangements; appeal planned to Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Students in the classroom at Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Catholic School in Sun Prairie, which has an enrollment of 460 in Pre-K through grade 8. (Photo:

MADISON, Wisconsin — A coalition of Catholic schools, parents and benefactors plan to hire a law firm to challenge an order issued late Friday to close all schools in Dane County to in-person instruction for students in grades 3-12. Many Catholic schools were slated to open starting August 24 after being closed much of last spring due to COVID-19.

Led by the Madison-based St. Ambrose Academy, the coalition launched a GiveSendGo crowdfunding site on August 22 that quickly raised more than $22,300 out of an initial goal of $60,000. The plan is for Catholic schools to hire Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP, a law firm that earlier this year helped the Diocese of Madison defeat attempts to place strict limits on Mass attendance due to COVID-19. They hope to make an emergency appeal directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Meanwhile, parishes have organized a Rosary rally for 3 p.m. Monday on the State Street steps of the Wisconsin Capitol Building, where last week 2,000 Catholics gathered for a Eucharistic procession and patriotic Rosary.

Catholic school officials said they had no advance warning that Public Health Madison & Dane County would issue a COVID-19 school closing order. The health agency issued Emergency Order #9 after 5:00 p.m. CDT on Friday, August 21, sending Catholic schools and parents into confusion and anger just 60 hours before opening of the 2020-21 school year in many communities. Janel Heinrich, public health officer for Madison and Dane County; and Joe Parisi, Dane County executive, could not be reached Saturday evening for comment.

“We are extraordinarily disappointed at this order and its timing,” Bishop Donald J. Hying said in a letter to parents issued jointly with Michael J. Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Madison. “You have told us of your sadness, your anger and your children’s grief as they burst into tears when you told them of the county’s decision.”

Hying said over the past three months, principals and superintendents participated in twice-weekly calls with Public Health Madison & Dane County, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “We asked questions, adjusted plans as guidance changed and made sure we had the latest information,” Hying wrote. “Our principals worked tirelessly to draft, revise and perfect reopening plans, ensuring that all CDC, DHS and county guidelines were followed, and that no detail was overlooked in order to make our schools safe for students and teachers.”

On “numerous occasions” since July, county officials were asked to provide the metrics that would be used regarding the closing and opening of schools in light of COVID-19, Hying said. “These were not provided until Friday, leaving many of you, who have already gone back to work, with the added hardship of finding child care. Many of you have few if any options given this order.”

Joan Carey, executive director of St. Ambrose Academy, consulted over the weekend with Misha Tseytlin, a Troutman Pepper partner who formerly served as Wisconsin solicitor general. “Engaging his firm is very expensive, but he believes we have a good case and a good forum in the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Carey said in an email sent to supporters on Saturday. “Litigation is always uncertain, but we believe an effort of this caliber could move Dane County to a reversal.”

Frustrations were already high in Dane County with what some view as heavy-handed regulations spun out of the county health agency. Earlier this year, Public Health Madison issued orders to limit attendance at Holy Mass to 50 people, regardless of building capacity, while allowing retailers, restaurants and other locations to operate with a 25 percent capacity. On June 3, the Diocese of Madison delivered a 17-page letter to city and county officials protesting the limits and indicating litigation would be initiated if the orders were not quashed. Less than 48 hours after refusing to budge of the Mass limits, Public Health Madison & Dane County backed off, citing the cost of potential litigation.

As in the current case, the Diocese of Madison was given no advance notice of the Mass-limits regulation back in June. Pastors and school officials say privately they feel the government is targeting the Catholic Church with its regulations. Some believe the school-closing order is an attempt to prevent long-term enrollment shifts from public schools (which are mostly doing online instruction) to faith-based schools, which have moved to reopen with in-person instruction and school activities.

Both the school closing order and the limits on attendance at Holy Mass raise important legal issues regarding whether a county health officer has authority to make such far-reaching rules affecting private schools, activities and athletics. On May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers “Safer at Home” program that essentially locked down the state over concerns about spread of the coronavirus. The same Wisconsin statutes that the Supreme Court said the state could not use to mandate a society-wide quarantine have been used by local government to issue mandatory mask orders and a wide menu of rules on public behavior in businesses, stores and other venues.

Brent King, spokesman for the Diocese of Madison, said some 30 Diocese of Madison Catholic schools outside of Dane County will open for instruction over the next two weeks. Inside Dane County, the first day of school has been delayed until after Labor Day if necessary.while schools consider all legal options.

“The grassroots reaction to the Dane County order has been awesome and it has only been 24 hours,” King said. “I know of hundreds of families who have called local politicians to express their disagreement, anger, and disgust in a very short time. We hope the county will listen to these faithful families, for the sake of the kids and their spiritual, psychological, emotional, as well as physical well being. Close to 30 schools outside of Dane County are safely opening these next weeks. Dane County Catholic schools can too. We believe it is what is best for the children, given all the best available information.”

Scott Grabins, technology director for Edgewood Campus School (4K through grade 8) who has one daughter at Edgewood High School, said he is “extremely frustrated” by the county health order. “We’ve been working hard for months to prepare for in-person instruction this fall, making significant investments in getting the school ready for social distancing and just working in good faith, based on best practices, to safely provide for our students and families,” Grabins said. “There has been so much effort put into making our school as safe as possible for students, that it’s extremely frustrating to be in this position now.” Grabins is also chairman of the Republican Party of Dane County.

According to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Health, Wisconsin has logged 70,009 cases of COVID-19 through August 22, with 1,081 deaths due at least in part to the virus. Nearly 1.2 million COVID-19 tests have been done; with more than 1.1 million being negative. There are currently 350 people hospitalized statewide, including 119 in intensive care. Wisconsin hospitals have total capacity of 11,500 beds. According to an analysis of state data by the MacIver Institute, total virus-related deaths represent 1.5 percent of positive COVID-19 diagnoses.

Dane County reported 55 new cases of COVID-19 on August 22, ranking fourth among Wisconsin counties. Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations have never exceeded 450 beds on any day since early May, according to MacIver.

On August 20, Hying wrote, “Dane County announced that the daily number of coronavirus cases had dropped by nearly 50 percent since July 13, while the seven-day average of new cases continued to decline. Yet now, despite declining numbers and all the work and diligence given to following all the guidelines for reopening, Dane County has said that only grades K-2 may return, while all other grades must start online.”

Gov. Evers issued an emergency order on July 30 mandating that masks be worn indoors by everyone age 5 and older, except at home. A number of Wisconsin county sheriffs have said they will not enforce the orders because they believe them to be unconstitutional.

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About Joseph M. Hanneman 101 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.


  1. “They hope to make an emergency appeal directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.” Interesting. Dane County, one of the most liberal counties in the state, which along with Milwaukee, control the entire state. These same voters elected a more, most, liberal Supreme Court Judge to replace a more constitutional judge whose position was filled by the the will of the people of Dane and Milwaukee Counties. Now they are going to hope the the sway of the politically left influenced majority, or near majority, are going to listen to their pleas? It would be great but contradictory to the way in which the voters in those areas voted. I praise those schools for standing up to the liberal agenda foisted upon them. I praise their witness and love for God and their witness to the love of truth for the students in their supervision. But why do you think they are forcing private Catholic Schools to close? Because of their bigoted attitude toward private Catholic Education. Milwaukee realized that if they closed the public schools that students would gravitate to the schools that truly educate their students. So they raised the level of emergency of Covid and said the Catholic, and private, schools must also close. And many of the MPS teachers do not want to teach, even online, and yet want a paycheck from the taxpayers. Again, I praise these schools and hope that they win. I hope that that their Bishop, Bishop Hying, does not crumble under fear like the majority of most bishops. It is good to see a bishop who fights for the faith and does not let the faithful fend for themselves.

  2. Are we all in this together? Or, are we uniquely exempt from scientific evidence the fact that the absence of Federal Government leadership has continued to exacerbate the problem? This insidious pandemic respects no borders. The very reason America is uniquely embarrassed on the world stage is this “go it alone” mentality. As the virus spikes in the US, I am amazed by these statements…

    “Our principals worked tirelessly to draft, revise and perfect reopening plans, ensuring that all CDC, DHS and county guidelines were followed, and that no detail was overlooked in order to make our schools safe for students and teachers.”

    “The health agency issued Emergency Order #9 after 5:00 p.m. CDT on Friday, August 21, sending Catholic schools and parents into confusion and anger just 60 hours before opening of the 2020-21 school year in many communities.”

    Our quarantine and testing efforts are, and have been sadly lacking. Italy is now the “gold standard” and an example for all nations. They mandated a “lockdown” in the early stages of the coronavirus… the US did not and we are paying the price. Until we have strong leadership and a vaccine is found for COVID 19, we must apply tough rules for citizen gatherings. This evasive monster virus has now been determined to affect all ages. Most dangerous is the child who is asymptomatic and is spreading the illness to others including their vulnerable grandparents and not knowing it.

    • Morgan, you could be right about children spreading the virus. Currently that’s contrary to what researchers are telling us, but what experts say seems to change weekly. So, who knows?
      One of our local Catholic high schools lost a student to Covid recently. He had suffered serious asthma before contracting the virus. But generally the mortality rate for children and teens appears extremely low. As does the incidence of infecting their parents and teachers.
      It’s going to be a few years until we see the entire picture and know who’s right, but I don’t think we can continue to shut down education and employment until then. We’d be creating a possibly worse future outcome.

    • Are we all in this together morgan8? Or are leftist ideologues in positions of power (and in comboxes everywhere) cherry-picking statistics, glossing over glaring evidence of a Christophobic double standard, and virtue signalling in apoplectic desperation as the cases decline so precipitously that no amount of media manipulation will keep the pretense going forever?

    • You might wish to consider looking a bit deeper into this. There is very good reason to question the reported numbers.

      Are you aware of the standards by which cases and deaths are classified? One needn’t be proven to have Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) to be classified as a SARS-COv2 death? Regardless of the actual cause of death if one dies within 60 days after a positive test; which can an antibody test which may be positive even if not attributable to Covid-19 as the CDC itself admits, that death is classified as a SARS-COv2 death.

      All this info is available on the CDC’s own website. Yet the numbers are being reported with an exactitude never before seen for any infectious disease. There’s good reason to withhold judgement pending additional information and answers to good questions once good reporters start asking them.

    • I’d be delighted if President Trump issued E.O.s contrary to masks, S.D., testing, transferring positive Covid19 patients into nursing homes, mandating schools be open, and allowing Hydrochloroquine/zinc/Zmac for any patient who wanted to try that in the early stage of the disease, cuz, you know, My-Body-My-Choice.
      Sweden has a lower death rate than Gold Standard Italy:
      If you want to stay home, stay home! That’s pretty much what my family has done since March. You could not pay me to get on an airplane or go to a large concert. My husband and I went to a tennis tournament this weekend and did a lot more S.D. than most of the pro-lockdown, anti-school people there.
      And that’s my choice. You make your own, and stop forcing the rest of us to live our lives to fit your paradigm.

  3. Somewhat typical of public servants under immense pressure, they sometimes have difficulty sitting down and making a rational decision based on local circumstances – they want to apply a ‘one size fits all’ solution to whatever confronts them. This is done, ‘in the interest of the public or state benefit,’ or other such nonsense.

    From 100 miles away, it’s easy to understand parochial schools generally have lower enrollment, thus easier to social distance, than the public schools which have packed halls and common areas. Not to mention the unknown cost of children affected by parents, guardians or family members who are generally ill equipped to handle children at home, while still needing an education. (Some do very well though) The secular leaders often can’t understand, or even fathom, that parents and supporting parishioners see a great benefit in children receiving a Christ based education, not just learning how to run a personal computer in order to compete in the job market someday.

    The world goes on even in a pandemic; we have to consider those in the population who can’t stay home, and who have to make a living or get an education. In Michigan, the governor claims, “Every life matters,” yet cigarettes have not been banned by another Executive Order, the speed limits have not been lowered, and routine and sometimes urgent medical care is not being administered, much due to the fear mongering instilled by the politicians and the hand-wringing media. The rationale behind the lockdown decisions is not disclosed, or up for debate; our full time state reps from either party have largely no input. Yet polls seem to show the public supports our potty-mouthed leader’s lockdowns. Abortion clinics are considered ‘essential service’ while an exercise gym is not.

    (I have a family member fighting covid, she is holding her own, prayer helps!)

    Fight the good fight in Wisconsin! Blessed be the name of Jesus!

  4. Oh Mighty God, we understand that you have been working on your people here on earth. So far 2020 as been a very big wake up notice. We are also aware that the Evil one has been stirring up anger and fear, trying to make all the incidents appear to be your fault, so we will turn on you. But guess what Lord? If look around, we are noticing that the silent majority are getting up and are not taking it anymore. We are fighting back. We are opening our mouths and fighting for our children instead of allowing our government to allow our children to be killed in abortions or even sicker, killed after being born!! Closing schools after towns and cities have found away to open them. Yes Lord, we know that we have kept silent to long and that you are very upset, as you should be. Your people have been lax in saying NO MORE and now the Devil is dancing in the streets, he’s made friends with our government and doing a pretty good job of destroying our country.
    So Father, we beg forgiveness and ask you for help. Yes God, we are failing and need you to bail us out. We have sunk so low, that we are ashamed to call ourselves worthy of your forgiveness. So humbly we come to you, heads hung asking: Lord God, Heavenly King Rescue us, our families our Churches,towns and world from your wrath and from the clutches of the Evil One. Bring the authority back to your people in their home areas. Stop big government from holding us captive in what they think is right. You know what is right and through your churches you can help us. There is so much more can that we are in need of from you, but what ever is your will for us, we will understand and except. Just let us be again one with you. 🙏🏼

  5. “Some believe the school-closing order is an attempt to prevent long-term enrollment shifts from public schools (which are mostly doing online instruction) to faith-based schools, which have moved to reopen with in-person instruction and school activities.“

    This is the bottom line..

    Public schools afraid of losing students.

11 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Wisconsin Catholic schools will challenge local COVID-19 closing order - Catholic Mass Search
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  3. Wisconsin Catholic academy hires legal counsel to fight COVID closing order – Catholic World Report
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  5. Wisconsin Catholic academy hires legal counsel to fight COVID closing order - Catholic Mass Search
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  7. Wisconsin Supreme Court says Catholic schools can open – Catholic World Report
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  11. Private schools in Wisconsin county win in court, stay open in spite of COVID orders – Health Freedom Virginia

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