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

Milwaukee Schools Say They Were Blindsided By Health Department Order Banning In-Person Classes

Emily Files
Families and staff of Wisconsin Lutheran High School march to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's house, calling on the city health department to change its restrictions on in-person school.

Updated on July 21 at 5:49 p.m.

After some confusion and criticism, the Milwaukee Health Department clarified Tuesday that it does not intend to keep all city schools closed this fall.

Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik says the department will issue a new order that allows schools to open for in-person classes if they have an approved safety plan in place.

Original story

Over the last few weeks, Milwaukee school leaders in K-12 and higher education have been putting their final touches on plans for the fall. But many of them didn't know that the decision about reopening schools might be out of their hands.

The Milwaukee Health Department quietly changed its restrictions on school openings in late June, when the city moved into Phase 4 of its coronavirus safety plan. In-person school with distancing measures was originally allowed in Phase 4. But the health department bumped school reopening to Phase 5.

It appears that when the health department made that change, it didn’t tell schools.

“I was stunned and disappointed and frustrated,” said Henry Tyson, the superintendent at Saint Marcus Lutheran School, a private voucher school that was planning to reopen for in-person classes.

That is, until Tyson found out last week that the health department has barred schools from face-to-face learning.

“I just could not believe that a change like that could be made without any public acknowledgment when the health department must have known that was going to have a huge impact on schools that were planning on opening,” Tyson said.

"I could not believe that a change like that could be made without any public acknowledgment." - Henry Tyson

It wasn’t just private K-12 schools that were blindsided. Leaders at Milwaukee colleges say they were not consulted about or notified of the change.

Milwaukee School of Engineering Vice President of Academics Eric Baumgartner said he learned of the restriction by closely reading the health order when it was issued in late June.

“It was not expected,” Baumgartner said. “We were not notified.”

MSOE and about a dozen other Milwaukee colleges and universities sent a letter to Mayor Tom Barrett on July 14, asking for revisions to the health order.

Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design President Jeff Morin says if MIAD isn’t allowed to hold in-person classes, that could jeopardize student enrollment.

“For some [students,] this may be a qualifier in whether they decide to come back to the institution or not for the fall semester,” Morin said.

The city’s largest educational institution, Milwaukee Public Schools, was also unaware of the health department changing its stance on school reopening, according to a spokesman. MPS decided last week to start the school year virtually, which is in line with the health department order.

>>MPS Board Approves Virtual Start To School Year, Despite Some Parent Objections

Under the order, schools couldn’t hold in-person classes until the city enters Phase 5 of the reopening schedule — when a list of public health criteria is met, including a 14-day downward trend in the percent of positive COVID-19 cases.

Milwaukee K-12 schools that were planning to reopen for in-person instruction are calling on the health department to reconsider these restrictions.

Wisconsin Lutheran High School held a march to Mayor Barrett’s house on Sunday. Principal Phil Leyrer said his school has a plan for masked, socially distanced in-person classes five days a week. He said 70% of parents support that plan.

“We’ve been following the science, especially the American Academy of Pediatrics, who say the best place for students to receive the most comprehensive education is in school, in front of live teachers, face-to-face instruction,” Leyrer said. “And that’s what we want to deliver.”

Parents and students turned out for the march, with signs saying "School Is Essential."

“You have to accept some amount of risk,” said Ryan Buch, who has a daughter at Wisconsin Lutheran. “As parents, when you speak with your high school student, and the school is gonna follow through with things they’re doing to keep your child as safe as possible, then we feel like sending them back to school would be the right thing to do, especially in the private school setting.”

Credit Emily Files / WUWM
Two counter-protesters who declined to give their names showed up to Wisconsin Lutheran High School's march. They were opposed to schools reopening for in-person classes.

Even though most of the parents at the Sunday rally supported face-to-face school, one mother was there with a “COVID KILLS” sign. She asked not to be identified to protect her child’s privacy.

“I trust that our Milwaukee Heath Department are the experts and they’ll uphold their decision to keep kids safe,” she said. “We’re against our children being sent to the slaughter.”

Wisconsin Lutheran principal Leyrer said his school is working to provide a virtual option for families who don’t want their children in school buildings.

The Health Department declined an interview for this story. A spokesman said Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik would answer questions at a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon. The department says it will revisit its order once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases new guidelines on school reopening.

Barrett issued a statement Monday afternoon in response to the outcry over the health department’s restrictions on school reopening.

“I would like schools to have the option to open for in-person classes this fall, but only if they meet specific criteria and public health authorities feel it is safe,” Barrett said. “Commissioner Kowalik and her staff will continue to meet with educators to evaluate proposals to return students to school virtually and in-person this fall.”

Meanwhile, teachers’ unions from Wisconsin’s five largest districts are calling on state leaders to bar schools from reopening until the spread of the coronavirus is better contained.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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