Supreme Court takes up effort to block school closures in Racine

    Gavel courtroom sitting vacant
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    The Wisconsin Supreme Court has given the Racine public health department until 4 p.m. on Monday to respond to a petition by School Choice Wisconsin, a private-school lobbying group, to block the closure of Racine schools as part of a public health order seeking to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

    The City of Racine Public Health Department issued the order on November 12, closing all public and private school buildings from November 27 to January 15.

    School Choice Wisconsin, along with a group of private and religious schools and four Racine parents are seeking to block the order, taking their case directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) is representing the plaintiffs, seeking an original action by the state’s highest court and an injunction on the public health order.

    “The Wisconsin Supreme Court took our legal challenge and issued an injunction when Dane County illegally attempted to close all schools,” Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty counsel Rick Esenberg, who is representing School Choice Wisconsin and the other plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement. “Because the issues presented in Racine are so similar, it is our hope the Court will take the original action and issue a similar injunction in Racine while the Dane County case is under consideration.”

    In its court filings, WILL argues that “local health officers have the power to inspect schools but not the power to close them.”

    “Once again, and in contravention of state statutes and constitutional guarantees, a local government bureaucrat has prohibited Wisconsin parents from sending their own children to receive in-person instruction in privately owned and operated schools, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as justification,” the emergency petition states.

    Other petitioners in the case include Wisconsin Council of Religious & Independent Schools, EverGreen Academy, Racine Christian School, Racine Lutheran High School, St. John’s Lutheran Church & School, Trinity Lutheran School, Ethan Bickle, Andrea Thunhorst, Ryan Thunhorst, and Elaine Wilson.

    Because the Supreme Court is still considering a similar lawsuit against a public health order closing schools in Dane County, and has temporarily enjoined the order, agreeing that the petitioners in that case are “likely to succeed on the merits of their argument” that local public health officials overstepped their authority, the court should follow the same path in Racine, the emergency petition argues.

    Racine teachers disagree.

    “The top priority must be keeping students and staff safe until the pandemic is under control,” Angelina Cruz, a Racine teacher and president of the Racine Educators United (REU), the teachers union, said in a statement.

    “Racine teachers are in full support of the Racine City Health Department’s decision to move completely to virtual learning after November 23,” she added, calling the public health order “a responsible decision, grounded in science and public health.” 

    “Racine teachers are committed to working with Racine Unified School District leaders to make sure remote learning continues to work well for students,” Cruz said. “Educators want nothing more than to be in our classrooms with students, but it’s not safe right now.” 

    Ruth Conniff
    Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.