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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Brewery owner aims for class action lawsuit against all Wisconsin school districts not requiring masks

Minocqua Brewing Company was in the news in 2020 after Oneida County asked them to remove their Biden/Harris sign, citing sign size regulations.
Minocqua Brewing Company
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Minocqua Brewing Company was in the news in 2020 after Oneida County asked them to remove their Biden/Harris sign, citing sign size regulations.

A Wisconsin craft brewery owner is funding lawsuits against two school districts – Waukesha and Fall Creek – that aren’t requiring masks.

Minocqua Brewing Company's Kirk Bangstad said his goal is to create a class action lawsuit that would compel all Wisconsin districts to comply with CDC COVID safety recommendations.

Bangstad has been involved in progressive politics for a while. He ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly last year and created a super PAC to fund political causes.

>>Why A Northern Wisconsin Brewery Owner Started A Super PAC

He never thought the PAC would pay for lawsuits against school districts. But he points out, school mask requirements have become political.

"I realized it was a very vocal, very obnoxious minority that was being urged on by conservative talk radio, folks watching Tucker Carlson, etc, to overrun school boards and focus on things like critical race theory and anti-masking," Bangstad said.

Even though the CDC and Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services recommend masking in schools, many districts are not requiring it.

Bangstad wanted those districts held accountable and didn't see any large-scale legal action happening to do that. So, he put a call out to Minocqua Brewing’s 50,000 Facebook followers.

"[The post was] asking if there were any parents who had kids who had gotten COVID in school districts where the mitigation efforts from last year were no longer in place," Bangstad said. "And I was deluged by Wisconsin parents across the state saying yes, their kids were getting COVID or they were super scared their kids would get COVID...And they felt helpless to do anything."

Bangstad connected some of those parents to his lawyer, Frederick Melms, and within the last week they’ve filed federal lawsuits in the Eastern and Western District Courts of Wisconsin.

The plaintiffs in Waukesha and Fall Creek – which is near Eau Claire – have similar stories. Both have a child who the parents believe caught COVID after sitting near a classmate who was sick and unmasked.

The lawsuits argue that the school districts put children in unnecessary danger, and are causing a public nuisance by potentially spreading COVID to the broader community.

"The goal is to protect kids from getting COVID and whatever long-term effects they might get from COVID," Bangstad said. "The goal is to protect teachers from getting COVID. And the goal is to protect communities from having mass super-spreader events that give at-risk people COVID because children are vectors for the virus."

Wisconsin DHS opens outbreak investigations at any school with two or more COVID cases. In September, investigations at education facilities (K-12 schools, colleges, and daycares) spiked to 693. A DHS spokesperson said the department does not have information on how many of the facilities have mask requirements.

Leaders of the Waukesha and Fall Creek districts say they are aware of the litigation but declined to comment.

Families concerned about COVID safety are watching to see what happens.

Erica Kochanski is a Waukesha mother who has been advocating for safety measures. She is not involved in the lawsuit, but thinks it’s the only option left to convince the school board to change course.

"We’ve had meetings, we’ve sent emails, we made phone calls, we had a petition, we’ve spoken at board of education meetings, there is guidance out there from the CDC, the DPI, DHS, from Children’s Hospital, from expert upon expert," Kochanski said. "And all of it is being ignored." 

Kochanski has been homeschooling her first grader rather than sending her to a school where masks aren’t required.

She's worried if her first grader were to catch it COVID and spread it to her older daughter, vulnerable people would be at risk. Her older daughter attends a private school that serves students with special needs, some of whom are at high risk for COVID complications, Kochanski said.

"There have definitely been tears both as a parent and from our daughter who really wants to be in school with kids but also wants to do her part and wants to keep people safe," Kochanski said. "So it was heart-wrenching at times but also a necessary decision."

As for what happens next with the litigation, Bangstad hopes a judge will grant class certifications for the lawsuits, so they can apply to all Wisconsin districts that don’t follow CDC safety recommendations.

If not, he says his super PAC has raised more than $50,000 that it could use to sue other districts one-by-one.

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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