Children in an elementary school classroom. (Getty Images photo)
Gov. Tony Evers reiterated Tuesday that he has no plans to issue a statewide order forbidding schools from holding in-person classes this fall, despite statements to the contrary from Republican lawmakers.
Asked at a media briefing Tuesday afternoon about a statement from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) voicing suspicion that Evers would “flip-flop” on the issue, the governor replied: “I have no secret plan as he suggested.”
Evers said he had been in touch regularly with the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) as well as leaders of school districts around the state about their plans for the fall to operate safely amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am extraordinarily pleased with the conversations that school districts across the state are having, not only with their teachers and faculty members, but making sure that the community is involved,” he said during the briefing, conducted with the state Department of Health Services (DHS). “Many school districts are involving students in the decision making. So I think the process is going well, and I’m looking forward to having further conversations and seeing how things go going forward.”
The claim that Evers would mandate a statewide shift to only virtual learning surfaced Monday when state Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), without offering substantiating evidence, charged in a press release that there were “growing indications from education sources” that Evers would use the Emergency Public Health Declaration that the governor announced last week “to prohibit schools, public and private, from starting the year with in-person classes.”
Evers flatly rejected the claim when asked about it Monday in an interview with Milwaukee television station WTMJ, and stood by that response when queried by reporters Tuesday.
Urban districts going online
Several large urban districts, including Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Kenosha, have decided to start the school year in the fall with an all-virtual schedule, while many smaller districts are still planning on in-person classes. “And just about every school offers a remote option,” Evers said.
The governor said he was willing for school districts to make those decisions individually because of their diversity in size.
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“All school districts look different,” Evers said. Many small districts in the state “already have small class sizes, or they already have the opportunity to keep kids physically distant” — 6 feet apart or more to reduce the chance of spreading the virus.
By contrast, the statewide mandatory mask order that took effect Saturday, Aug. 1, recognizes that “the virus is every place in the state of Wisconsin, it’s taking a toll every place in Wisconsin,” Evers said.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Evers spoke of emails he has received from people around the state supporting the mask order, including health care workers and business leaders, the latter of whom wanted it to further protect their employees.
As he did when Evers first announced the mask order on July 30, Ryan Nilsestuen, chief legal counsel for the governor’s office, downplayed the role of law enforcement with respect to carrying out the order, and declarations by some county sheriffs that they would not make arrests for people flouting it.
The state statute authorizing the governor to make the order does include a civil forfeiture of up to $200 that a district attorney, if a case is referred, could seek, he said.
“There’s strong broad support for face coverings across the state,” Nilsestuen added. “We’ve heard that from people across Wisconsin, we’ve heard it from constituents. We’ve heard it from business leaders. So I think while there are some sheriffs or other people who like to make a lot of noise about either enforcing or not enforcing it, the fact is, I think most people get it. They understand that wearing a face covering is a very small action that collectively can have a really big impact on combating this disease.”
Fitzgerald has said he would seek to call the state Senate back into an extraordinary session to pass a resolution throwing out both the mask order and the broader health emergency executive order under which it was declared.
“I think that would be a significant mistake,” Evers said Tuesday. “We all know that. wearing a mask is an important way to mitigate against the spread and transmission of this virus. We have lots of things we want to do in this state: making sure our kids have good education, making sure that our businesses are strong and making sure that we can have economic recovery — and one of the ways to do that is to wear a mask.”
Whether the Legislature will move ahead on that, however, is still unclear. So far Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has not yet publicly indicated whether he and Assembly Republicans would join with Fitzgerald in a resolution overturning the orders.
Vos also has indicated he would leave it to private organizations if any want to sue to block the governor.
Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which took part in the lawsuit that led the state Supreme Court on May 13 to throw out Evers’ Safer At Home order and ended the state’s earlier public health emergency, stated last week that while wearing a mask was “courteous and smart,” Evers “lacks the authority to declare a second public health emergency.” In a message sent to its email list Monday, the conservative law firm said it was “currently reviewing the emergency declaration and statewide mask mandate.”
In a poll released in June, however, WILL noted that “68% agree that masks should be required in public.”
At the DHS media briefing, Evers emphasized the mask order could help make it possible for businesses to stay open and for schools to have more options when classes start, including offering in-person classes.
“If people want to have a successful school year, and beginning of the school year,” he said, they should be “wearing a mask, [staying] physically distant from each other, and also not going into places where you have a whole bunch of people without masks on in a small place. It’s all problem areas. So let’s get together, be good about this issue. And have a good school year.”
In other developments
- Evers and Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said Wisconsin was working to further expand its lab capacity for COVID-19 tests, initially focusing on nursing home employees and residents.
- The number of new positive tests for COVID-19 rose by 728 as of Tuesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 56,056. The state reported 12 more deaths, for a total of 961 deaths since Wisconsin began tracking the novel coronavirus.
- Extended federal authorization for the National Guard to be deployed to help with COVID-19 testing and other related tasks through the end of the year will require the state to spend about $4 million that is not included in the federal order, Evers said, but the state will follow through on that. While reduced federal funding “was a disappointment,” he said that the Guard had played an important role as the state has increased testing over the last few months.
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