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Catholic schools stay open in WI; court date set over COVID closure order

Wisconsin Supreme Court sets oral arguments for December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

Students at St. Ambrose Academy enjoy outdoor social time during the first week of in-person instruction under a Wisconsin Supreme Court order. (St. Ambrose Academy via Facebook/Joseph G. Ptak)

MADISON, Wisconsin — Students returned to the classrooms of St. Ambrose Academy this week under a Wisconsin Supreme Court temporary injunction that prevents the Dane County health agency from enforcing a COVID-19 school-closure order, just as the court scheduled oral arguments in the case for December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The court this week held in abeyance a new motion from Public Health Madison & Dane County seeking to vacate the court’s September 10 injunction that allows all county schools from grades 3-12 to be open for in-person instruction. This most likely means St. Ambrose and other Catholic schools can finish the fall term without further threat of closure due to outbreak of the coronavirus. A coalition of eight Catholic schools and parishes on August 28 asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court for emergency action, saying the health agency’s August 21 school-closure order, Emergency Order #9, was unconstitutional and beyond the agency’s legal authority.

“So many of our parents have reached out to express their joy about their kids being back in school,” said Joan Carey, executive director of St. Ambrose Academy, a classical Catholic school enrolling grades 6-12. “They’re ecstatic that the Wisconsin Supreme Court recognized the damage being done to children and removed the roadblocks to furthering their education. Our parents are confident that we have taken every possible measure to reopen in compliance with public health guidelines, including renting space in a nearby building and moving half our student body there to enable social distancing.”

After being enjoined from enforcing its COVID-19 school-closure order, Public Health Madison & Dane County went back to the Wisconsin Supreme Court on September 16, seeking to have the injunction vacated and the schools’ legal filings dismissed. The agency urged schools to stick to distance learning via the internet for grades 3-12, in order to control the spread of the coronavirus outbreak that began earlier this year. The agency said there should be a phased reopening of classrooms, only after the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have dropped reliably below levels outlined in its school metrics document. The court held the agency’s motion in abeyance, so the temporary injunction remains in force.

“Dane County is home to approximately 169 public schools (in 16 districts) and 45 private or charter schools. Opening in a phased manner, with grades K-2 first, is a way to carefully minimize risk of exposure to the greatest extent possible while supporting a way to get back to school,” the agency said in a news release. “As we reintroduce in-person school, we must ensure we are still able to identify and contain the number of cases that are likely to result from more people being exposed in more settings.”

Angela Hineline, St. Ambrose’s director of enrollment and learning services, said she finds it “increasingly disturbing” that Public Health Madison & Dane County disregards what she views as the real impact of its emergency order on students.

“As an educator and a mother, I have seen the harm the virtual-only mandate has done to my kids and others I serve. The harm done to children can be very difficult to overcome,” Hineline said. “That is what I care about. Our ability to educate, socialize and raise our children in our Faith has been attacked. The Wisconsin Supreme Court recognized the irreparable harm being done to kids and our rights as parents and people of Faith to make decisions regarding our children. Nothing has changed that.”

Hineline said parents, teachers and students have worked together to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus. “Kids are wearing masks, keeping hands cleaned and sanitized, and working hard to maintain proper distancing,” she said. “And, our faculty has adapted to new protocols in a heroic way. Like the saints, our faculty feel called to their work as teachers and have joyfully embraced the protocols that will keep their students and co-workers safe.”

St. Ambrose is spending more than $80,000 this fall for its virus-mitigation plans, which included renting a nearby building in order to double classroom space to allow for safe physical distancing of students. The school requires students and staff to wear masks and frequently wash their hands. Hand sanitizer is used in all classrooms and disinfecting protocols were put in place throughout the buildings.

“Our parents are very supportive of our virus-mitigation efforts,” Hineline said. “They did the work at home before school started to begin training their children in what would need to be accomplished during the school day.  We’ve got everyone on board and that has made our adjustment run smoothly.”

Hineline said two families have opted for St. Ambrose Academy’s virtual-learning system for the fall term, while 64 families sent their children for classroom instruction. The school’s enrollment is 111. “When we surveyed our families in June, asking them what they wanted the 2020-2021 school year to look like, 97 percent of those families told us that their children needed in-person education,” Hineline said. “We listened to our parents and honored their wisdom in knowing what is best for their children.”

Dane County has had 8,251 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since February 5, resulting in 41 deaths. One death was among people under 40; there have been no deaths of people under 30. Nearly 30 percent of confirmed cases have been people under age 30. Just 4.2 percent of COVID-19 cases required hospitalization, according to Public Health Madison & Dane County data. Statewide, 94,746 people have tested positive for COVID-19, of 1.4 million people screened, with 1,231 deaths attributed at least in part to the virus.

Carey said she sees the hand of Divine Providence in the date set for oral arguments before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. “What a gift, since from its founding, we have put our school in the hands of Our Lady,” Carey said. “We continue to heed the words of Our Lady of Good Help, who appeared to Adele Brise right here in Wisconsin with the words, ‘Go into the wilderness, gather the children, and teach them what they need to know for salvation.’ ”


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About Joseph M. Hanneman 45 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

3 Comments

  1. Money spent on legal issues that could be used to feed the poor or provide scholarship monies for a Catholic student.

    The government there needs to quit wringing their hands and quit being upset that Catholics are able to think on their feet!

    • Our elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are open. The diocessan high schools are mixed Zoom/in person becasue the high school teachers are unionized. Many private (non diocesan) schools are also open.

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