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Under New Health Order, Milwaukee Schools With Approved Safety Plan Can Open At 50% Capacity

Emily Files
Wisconsin Lutheran High School families marched on July 19 in protest of the Milwaukee Health Department's restrictions on school reopening.

Updated at 5:05 p.m. CT

Milwaukee schools that want to reopen for in-person instruction got a new directive from the city health department on Friday: they can reopen, but only with an approved safety plan and at maximum 50% capacity.

It’s one of many restrictions on businesses and gatherings to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Milwaukee.

>>Milwaukee Health Department Will Allow Schools With Strong Enough Safety Plan To Reopen

Earlier this summer, the health department issued an order prohibiting any in-person school. But Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik clarified that the department would write a new order allowing schools with approved safety plans to reopen — with limits.

“We’re not talking about bam, everything’s back to normal,” Kowalik said in a media briefing on July 21. “We’re talking about phased. Whatever you can do remotely, that’s what you do, and whatever you have to do in person, that’s what you do in a very distanced and mindful way to limit the spread of COVID-19.”

The restrictions on in-person school aren’t an issue for Milwaukee Public Schools, which decided to start the school year virtually. But most colleges and various private K-12 schools in the city are planning to restart some in-person teaching.

Nicole Schmidt is the chief academic officer for LUMIN Schools, a Lutheran K-8 voucher school network with four locations in Milwaukee. Schmidt says LUMIN’s reopening plan is based on parent surveys.

“It was very 50/50 split. Some preferred an in-person opening and some preferred more of a consistent online option for their child,” Schmidt said. “So our plan for fall is to offer in-person school five days a week and an online school five days a week, just to meet the diverse needs of our student population.”

A spokesperson said Friday that the newly-announced 50% capacity limit won’t negatively impact LUMIN’s reopening plan since about half of students are planning to learn from home

Schools that are starting out entirely virtual are also waiting on the health department for guidance about where to go from here. Jennifer Lopez is the CEO of Carmen Schools of Science and Technology – a network of five public charter schools in Milwaukee.

“What constitutes an outbreak? At what point in time does the school close down?” Lopez asked. “Is it one case, is it multiple cases? I think there’s a number of questions yet to be answered that would provide us as school leaders with a lot more certainty.”

The health department will issue a checklist for schools to follow by the end of next week. It doesn’t leave much time for school leaders to revise, submit, and get approval for their safety plans if they want to reopen. School start dates range from mid-August to early September.

“I think navigating the next couple of weeks is going to be the biggest challenge,” said Schmidt, of LUMIN Schools. “Kind of riding the day-to-day around ensuring our plan has been verified and approved, and we've gotten feedback from the health department — having peace and clarity around, are we opening in-person or not?"

Both UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University have announced that their reopening safety plans were approved by the Milwaukee Health Department. A health department spokesperson said 20 schools have submitted safety plans so far.

The new health department order also imposes some additional restrictions on restaurants and bars. Those businesses are required to submit safety plans for approval by Sept. 15.

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