RACINE — A group of local private schools, parents and advocacy groups represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty are challenging the City of Racine Health Department’s school closure order in Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The order, issued by Racine’s Public Health Administrator Dottie-Kay Bowersox, would close all school buildings within its jurisdiction from Nov. 27 to Jan. 15 in an effort to keep COVID-19 from spreading in schools during the holiday season. The City Health Department covers Racine, Elmwood Park and Wind Point.
In its petition, WILL, a conservative nonprofit legal group based in Milwaukee, asks the Supreme Court to immediately put a halt to the order until a conclusion is reached in a similar case before the court regarding a public health order closing schools in Dane County. In September, the court put a temporary halt to Dane County’s health order until the case is concluded. That Dane County case, in which WILL is representing petitioners as well, is set for oral arguments on Dec. 8.
WILL argues that local public health officers do not have the legal power to order broad school closures.
Racine City Attorney Scott Letteney has previously asserted that the Department of Health Services state administrative code does give Racine Public Health Administrator Dottie-Kay Bowersox that power.
“The City of Racine Public Health Department will continue to do everything necessary and reasonable to protect our community from this deadly virus,” Bowersox said. “Our local public health orders remain in effect until otherwise directed by the Court.”
WILL filed the Racine petition at the Supreme Court level, foregoing the typical process of first fighting the order in the local circuit court. In its petition, WILL asks the Supreme Court to take on the case anyway because of its importance in determining the power of local health officials and because time is of the essence as, “Litigating this case through the ordinary process could result in multiple reversals.”
Local schools listed as petitioners in the case are EverGreen Academy, Racine Christian School, Racine Lutheran High School, St. John’s Lutheran Church & School and Trinity Lutheran School. Also involved in the case are advocacy groups School Choice Wisconsin Action and Wisconsin Council of Religious & Independent Schools, as well as local parents Ethan Bickle, Andrea Thunhorst, Ryan Thunhorst and Elaine Wilson.
While the vast majority of Racine Unified School District students have been attending virtual classes since the beginning of the school year, private and parochial schools in Racine have held classes in person, with some offering families a virtual option.
Catholic schools leader opposes order
Representatives from Siena Catholic Schools and Racine Lutheran both previously told The Journal Times that they believe the safety measures put in place at their schools, including mask wearing and social distancing, have worked.
“We want to follow the law,” said Siena Catholic Schools President Brenda White in letter to parents on Thursday. “However, we do question if the local health department has the authority to make a decision like this.”
Siena Catholic Schools, the largest private school system in Racine County, is not listed in the petition. However, three of the parent petitioners have children who attend St. Lucy School, a Siena Catholic School. The fourth individual named in the petition is a Racine Lutheran parent.
In the letter, White said that Siena is planning to make the switch to synchronous virtual learning after Thanksgiving, but will continue to look for updates from WILL regarding the Supreme Court petition.
RACINE — Local and national officials are asking that people celebrate Thanksgiving with only the people who live in their households.
Siena plans to continue in-person learning at St. Rita Catholic School, the only of its six schools located outside the jurisdiction of the City of Racine Public Health Department. St. Rita is located in Caledonia, which is under the jurisdiction of the Central Racine County Health Department.
Bowersox said the reason behind the timing of the order is the upcoming holidays. The Health Department is looking prevent people who pick up COVID-19 at family gatherings from spreading it when they return to school. The Health Department has seen spikes in cases after every major holiday so far this year, she said.