Lawsuit filed against head of PHMDC over emergency order requiring virtual start to school year

School Generic

MADISON, Wis. — A lawsuit was filed in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court on Tuesday arguing that Janel Heinrich, the Public Health Officer of Madison and Dane County, does not have the legal authority to keep children home from school.

Public Health Madison and Dane County issued Emergency Order #9, which went into effect Monday. It orders all Dane County schools to begin the 2020 school year virtually for students in grades 3-12. That includes private schools, many of which had intended to reopen to in-person classes.

The order says “At issue is whether one unelected official has the power to order children to ‘stay home’ from school whether or not they are sick, or to prohibit them from gathering in-person with other children to receive a religious education.”

The petitioner in the case is Sarah Lindsey James. Within the order she is identified as a Fitchburg single mom, who enrolled her two children at Our Redeemer Lutheran School saying “she believes that it is essential that her children’s education take place ‘in-person’ and ‘together with others as part of the body of Christ.'” It says her children began in-person learning Wednesday.

The order asks the Supreme Court to end Emergency Order No. 9, and prevent Heinrich from creating any other orders that would close private schools or restrict private gatherings. The court has asked Heinrich to respond by 4 p.m. Friday.

PHMDC posted answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Emergency Order No. 9 on their website Tuesday. Here’s their answer to “Why can’t we reopen all grade levels sooner?”:

We are driven by the data and will reopen schools as the data indicates we may do so. We all play a role in helping schools reopen. By limiting trips out, avoiding gathering, wearing masks, keeping  distance between others, staying home when we’re sick, covering coughs and sneezes, and washing our hands often, we can stop the spread of the virus. When the virus can’t spread, our case count decreases, and schools, businesses, and workplaces will be able to reopen faster and stay open. Opening in a phased manner starts carefully to minimize risk of exposure to the greatest extent possible while supporting way to get back to school. As we re-introduce 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.