MADISON — Recent communications from the Kenosha County public health department have some parents worried that health czars could once again try to close schools to in-person learning.
The Wisconsin Institute of Law & Liberty (WILL) is reminding Kenosha County Public Health it does not have the authority to close schools, a fact underscored by Wisconsin Supreme Court rulings.
WILL sent an advisory letter to the health department after receiving multiple reports from Kenosha-area parents that local health officials informed school boards and administrators that schools would be closed for in-person learning if COVID-19 numbers reached certain levels. Documents and emails obtained by WILL support these claims, the Milwaukee civil rights law firm said.
“We write this letter to remind the Health Department, as well as local school boards, school administrators, and parents in Kenosha County and elsewhere, of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision this summer holding that ‘local health officers do not have the power to close schools,’” the letter states.
Kenosha County health officials did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment, but Kenosha County Health Director Jan Freiheit told the Kenosha News that the department is merely issuing “advisory recommendations” to school districts.
“What was put out to school districts was a metrics recommendation to review protocols and processes if a school reaches a 3 percent positive COVID-19 case rate,” she told the newspaper.
Some Kenosha County school districts have made moves to implement virtual learning for certain grade levels, while others are pushing more stringent mask mandates.
Kenosha Unified School District officials did not return a call seeking comment on whether the district is planning to move to all-virtual learning.
“Less than six months ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that local health officers have no power to close schools,” said Luke Berg, WILL deputy general counsel. “The Kenosha County health department can make recommendations, offer guidance, and help schools navigate the pandemic. But they cannot close schools.”
The law firm ought to know. It was involved in two cases in which the state Supreme Court ruled that “local health officers do not have the power to close schools.” The opinions came down against health officers in Dane and Racine counties.
Parents’ concern and confusion about the health department’s authority is understandable. One email from a school district administrator to district families stated “Kenosha County Public Health has shared they would intervene and require a move to virtual instruction for all of our students if we reached a point of 3% active infections.”
The power is in the hands of the school boards.
“These decisions are not easy, and where to strike a balance is up for reasonable debate, but that is precisely why state law puts these decisions on the elected school board, who, unlike local health officials, are directly accountable to parents and voters,” WILL’s letter states.