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

Milwaukee Health Department Will Allow Schools With Strong Safety Plans To Reopen

City of Milwaukee
Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik speaks during a videoconference media briefing Tuesday. Kowalik said the department will issue a new order that allows schools to reopen with approved safety plans.

The Milwaukee Health Department says schools will be allowed to reopen with in-person instruction if they have a strong enough safety plan in place.

That news comes after an outcry from private schools and colleges in the city. Many of these schools realized just last week that the health department’s current coronavirus order prohibits in-person classes.

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

The health department issued its current order that restricts in-person school on June 25. Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik says at that time, they were waiting on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“At that point in time, June 25, we’re thinking of summer school, we’re not thinking of fall yet,” Kowalik said in a media briefing on Tuesday afternoon. “We were actually trending in the right direction at that point in time.”

Kowalik says they prohibited school opening while they waited for guidance, not thinking this restriction would apply to schools in the fall since cases were going down. Kowalik said she thought the city would be able to move into Phase 5 of its reopening plan, which would automatically allow school reopening. But that didn’t happen, with COVID-19 cases increasing around the beginning of July and continuing in the wrong direction.

Fast forward to last week, when many Milwaukee private schools and colleges became aware of the health order. They questioned why the department didn’t tell them about the rule.

Credit Emily Files / WUWM
Milwaukee's Wisconsin Lutheran School organized a march on Sunday to protest the health department's restriction on in-person school.

“There’s been a lot of backlash, a lot of misinformation out there that we were doing this in the dark or being malicious, which is totally not the case,” Kowalik said.

She said the information was there in the public health order, available for anyone to see. But she did say her department is short-staffed and can improve its communication.

Kowalik said the city will issue an updated health order within the next week, which will take into account Milwaukee’s new mask mandate and allow schools with an approved safety plan to reopen. She said those plans should include capacity limits, along with accommodations for vulnerable students.

“We know that some people are high-risk, some children are high-risk, and we don’t want them to be forced into [a] setting where they might be exposed,” Kowalik said. “So we need to see some evidence for accommodation and how will that be tracked and how will that be followed. And what virtual resources will be available for those who opt not to be in person.”

Milwaukee Public Schools has opted for an entirely virtual start to the school year. The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, along with teachers’ unions from other large school districts, are asking Wisconsin leaders to require a virtual start for all schools.

Wisconsin’s suburban districts, colleges, and private schools are leaning more toward in-person classes – even though there is a rise in coronavirus cases statewide. Henry Tyson, the superintendent of Milwaukee’s Saint Marcus Lutheran School, is glad the health department is being flexible. But he’s not happy with the process and the timing.

“We have worked crazy hard for six to eight weeks now developing a plan [for in-person instruction,] and now we’re going to put it into whatever format they’re looking for, meeting their expectations – and we don’t even know what those are — and school is starting in 30 days,” Tyson said. “It is a step in the right direction, but the fact that it is happening now is extremely frustrating.”

One thing that’s made the school reopening question difficult is not having a complete picture of how COVID-19 affects children. In Tuesday’s media call, Dr. Ben Weston with the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management highlighted a new, large-scale study from South Korea that raises red flags.

“It showed that while those age 0-9 years old show relatively low rates of transmission of the disease, those 10-19 years old show the highest rates of transmission of any age group, children or adults,” Weston said. “This means that kids do indeed spread COVID, in older children potentially more so than adults.”

That study coincides with a growing number of COVID-19 infections in Milwaukee County’s younger population, and record-setting infections statewide.

Kowalik said in the city of Milwaukee, some of the culprits for the COVID-19 spread include fitness centers, group homes and parties.

The new health order that takes stock of Milwaukee’s current situation and provides more flexibility for schools should be released by the end of next week.

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