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

Milwaukee Health Department Releases Rules For Reopening K-12 Schools

Emily Files
Wisconsin Lutheran High School families protested the Milwaukee Health Department's original order banning schools from in-person classes. The health department is now allowing schools to reopen with safety measures in place.

Milwaukee schools that bring students back in-person will have to follow dozens of safety rules, including 50% capacity limits and tracking positive COVID-19 cases within the school.

The rules come from the Milwaukee Health Department, which released its much-anticipated guidelines for school opening Tuesday. The guidelines apply to K-12 schools, whether public or private. The health department appears to have a separate process for colleges and universities to get their reopening plans approved.

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

Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett said in a press conference that schools are weighing the health concerns of COVID-19 against the social and academic benefits of in-person learning.

“Reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic is a complex process," Barrett said. "There must be many considerations, not only for safety, but additional circumstances involving economic hardships, social isolation, and nutritional and developmental wellness."

Milwaukee Public Schools and many independent charter schools are starting the year with virtual learning because of the threat of COVID-19. But some charter and private schools want to bring students back to buildings. In order to do that, they’ll need to submit a safety plan that meets that health department’s criteria.

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

Phil Leyrer is principal at Wisconsin Lutheran High School, which plans to have about 80% of its students back in-person. The rest have opted for virtual learning.

“We were happy to receive the guidance because we’d been waiting for it to come out,” Leyrer says. “And we had been working on our plan all summer long.”

Leyrer says most of the health department’s guidelines were not surprising. In addition to limiting buildings to 50% capacity, the rules include physical distancing in classrooms and hallways, screening students and staff each day for COVID-19 symptoms, and wearing masks.

“It definitely won’t be business as usual,” Leyrer says.

Leyrer says the most surprising part of the guidance is around outbreaks. If there are two positive COVID-19 cases at a school, a health department official will conduct a safety assessment. Then, the school will either be required to test students and staff for COVID-19, or to shift to virtual learning for a period of time.

“Two cases is a little surprising that, that would trigger an inspection,” Leyrer says. “You have to think about the size of the student body. A hundred students and two cases is one thing, but if you’re talking about 800 or 900 students, two cases isn’t necessarily that much.”

Wisconsin Lutheran will have around 700 students and employees in its building, according to Leyrer.

Schools would undergo a mandatory two-week shutdown if 3% of a school community tests positive for COVID-19. The health department is requiring schools to plan for three “phases” of learning: all virtual, hybrid and in-person. That way, if COVID cases increase or decrease, the school can shift to whatever phase is appropriate.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce released a statement thanking the health department for allowing schools to choose their reopening approach, within safety guidelines.

“One of Milwaukee’s unique strengths is the way it has empowered parents to choose the best educational setting for their children,” MMAC President Tim Sheehy says. “The safe school guidelines unveiled by the Mayor today apply that strength in the context of the current COVID crisis by giving parents the ability to choose from a variety of school settings the one that they believe most effectively balances the physical and educational needs of their child.”

During Tuesday’s press conference, Barrett said that the question of how to safely reopen schools fell to local health departments because of a lack of action at the state or federal level to significantly curb the virus.

“As we are now in the fifth month of this crisis, this pandemic in our country, we have seen a failure at the federal level to really act,” Barrett said. “At the state level, we have seen a paralysis, and the paralysis has been caused in large part because of the refusal of the legislature to be engaged in any responsible fashion whatsoever. What does that mean? That means this has been left to local health departments.”

Now there are just days or weeks before the start of the semester for many schools. Barrett said the health department would work hard to approve reopening plans as quickly as possible.

Some Milwaukee schools have already pushed back their start dates because of uncertainty around the coronavirus and the health department rules.

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