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

Private Schools Take Legal Action Against Racine Health Order Closing Schools

Emily Files
Sanitizing supplies sits on a student desk at Pilgrim Lutheran School in Wauwatosa.

Update 11/19 1:35 p.m.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is asking the state supreme court to block the city of Racine's order closing schools. The conservative law firm is representing School Choice Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, and a handful of Racine private schools that are beholden to the order, include Racine Christian School and Racine Lutheran High School. 

WILL is asking the court to temporarily enjoin the order until it rules on a pending case against a similar health order from Dane County. In September, the state supreme court issued a temporary injuction blocking parts of that order, which would have required Dane County schools to teach remotely. 

Original story:

The city of Racine Public Health Department is ordering school buildings to close after Thanksgiving until mid-January. Some private schools, which have been open in-person, are considering legal action.

Racine Health Administrator Dottie-Kay Bowersox issued the order because she expects holiday gatherings to worsen the city’s surging coronavirus spread. When the order came out on Thursday, the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate was above 35%.

“We’ve seen significant spikes after every major holiday since this pandemic began,” Bowersox says. “I’m fearful the numbers we’re seeing now will increase even more significantly, and if that’s the case, our public health is exhausted. I’m worried about health care, police and fire systems not being able to provide services on a regular venue because they will be overwhelmed with those individuals that are ill.”

The order directs school buildings to close to both students and staff between Nov. 27 and Jan. 15. Bowersox says schools are gathering places, so they pose a risk for COVID spread.

The directive applies to 19 private schools and 24 public schools in Racine, Wind Point and Elmwood Park.

Racine Unified School District is already using mostly virtual instruction but teachers have been required to report to buildings. Angelina Cruz, president of Racine Educators United, praises the health order.

“[The coronavirus] is out of control across Wisconsin,” Cruz says. “And we need to look at our communities and figure out where people are gathering most, and put a stop to it.”

Some Racine private schools are currently open in-person, and would have to change to virtual instruction under the order. Pete Van Der Puy is principal of Racine Christian School, where about 160 K-8 students have been in classrooms this year. He is opposed to the blanket order.

“We’ve had only three students test positive this year,” Van Der Puy says. “We’ve had other students who have been quarantined due to being close contacts of someone. None of the students who were close contacts of our positive cases ever developed COVID, so we’ve had very good success keeping our students in school.”

Van Der Puy says his school and others are exploring legal action against the health order. Jim Bender, with advocacy group School Choice Wisconsin, confirmed that private schools are weighing their legal options.

In September, private schools successfully fought a Dane County health order that mandated remote instruction. The state supreme court issued a temporary injunction, allowing schools to open.

Bowersox, the Racine public health administrator, says cities and counties are being forced to make decisions about shuttering schools because of a lack of action at the state and federal level.

“We’ve had very lax leadership at the state level, at the federal level,” Bowersox says. “And so it’s up to each jurisdiction to make a decision to best safely ensure the population based on the evidence and based on the science.”

A few days prior to the Racine order, the Kenosha County Health Department issued an order “strongly recommending” K-12 schools and colleges switch to virtual-only instruction between Nov. 23 and Jan. 4. The Kenosha Unified School District has not announced plans to halt its ongoing in-person instruction.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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