Dane County officials push back after GOP proposes limited public health authority, teachers back in classrooms

Dane County sign

MADISON, Wis. — A Covid-19 relief bill introduced by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is unlikely to gain traction in the state legislature this year, and prompted backlash from local Dane County officials as a partisan effort in a press conference with Dane County executive Joe Parisi, Madison mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, and others.

“Rather than an answer to our months’ long plea for state government to take greater action to combat the spread of Covid-19, Speaker Vos’s proposal undermines our ability to protect our residents,” Dane County executive Joe Parisi said in a press conference Wednesday. “It takes healthcare decisions out of the hands of healthcare professionals and puts them in the hands of politicians.”

Public Health

The bill would limit the power of local public health officials to implement closures or capacity restrictions on businesses, stipulating that any restrictions would need to apply to “all” rather than “some” types.

“I think that one of the things that has been effective about our approach here in Dane County is that we have been able to follow the science and the data, and have used that to really finetune restrictions,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We can restrict places where we’re seeing spread and loosen up on places where we’re not seeing spread.”

Dane County has implemented some of the strictest county-level restrictions in the state throughout the year, keeping business capacity restrictions in place after the state Supreme Court had overthrown Gov. Ever’s statewide Safer at Home order. And while no statewide restriction apart from the (repeatedly-challenged) mask mandate exists across Wisconsin, Dane County continues to ban indoor gatherings, outdoor gatherings of more than ten people, and restrict businesses on how many can be inside at a time. Currently, Rhodes-Conway said the COVID-19 rate of infection in Dane County is on par with nationwide trends, while the statewide rate is roughly double the nation.

“We also need the ability to have different policies to support minimizing the risk of illness, in whatever environment and whatever condition we may be experiencing in our community,” Janel Heinrich said, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County.

Under Wisconsin law, local public health officials are authorized to do what is necessary to prevent the spread of disease, including banning public gatherings. State Republicans have challenged COVID-19 safety measures in counties and the state in repeated lawsuits throughout the year.

Schools

Virtual learning could take a turn for the difficult under the proposals, which include a stipulation that school boards must approve virtual instruction with a two-thirds majority and a requirement that teachers return to the classroom by the end of January. The Madison Teachers, Inc. union president said they expected at this point in the pandemic that virtual instruction in the district would likely remain virtual for the foreseeable future.

“Circumstances can change but at this point in time, to expect staff to be in schools–especially not if students would be there as well–is really not responsible,” Andy Waity said. Speaking for the MTI, he said he would prefer to see the legislature

In the Madison Metropolitan School District, virtual learning decisions are ultimately up to the superintendent, although a spokesperson noted they prioritize collaborating with their school board when making those choices. In mid-October, the MMSD said they planned to maintain all-virtual learning through the second quarter of the school year, which ends January 22.

Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District is following guidance from PHMDC for 14-day new case averages, but note on their website that they will consider moving to a blended model for the second semester starting in mid-January.

A group of local school officials, school administrators and community members met with Dr. Joseph Allen from the Harvard TH Chan School of Health as part of the Reopen Dane Co. Schools effort. Dr. Allen was involved in Harvard research that was cited in PHMDC reopening guidelines, and has frequently called virtual schooling “a national emergency” and believes that coronavirus transmission at schools is low risk.

“The costs of kids out of school are really quite severe,” he said during the forum with Dane County school and community members Wednesday. “I think we’re just starting to see the beginnings of those costs that we will see for the next many months and unfortunately years at this point.”