The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the rights of private schools after granting a preliminary injunction against Dane County health officials who sought to prohibit private schools from holding in-person classes.
In a 4-3 ruling Thursday, the majority determined that while the parties in question care about the health and safety of students and teachers, and that the state Department of Health Services is given the power to close schools, local health officials do not have that authority.
“The state’s high court stated unequivocally that ‘Overriding the choices of parents and schools, who also undoubtedly care about the health and safety of their teachers and families, intrudes upon the freedoms ordinarily retained by the people under our constitutional design.’ That’s something that none of us can allow to go unchallenged,” said Thomas More Society Executive President and General Counsel Andrew Bath.
Dane County in Wisconsin, which houses Madison, issued an emergency order with Public Health Madison which was amended in early September to stop schools from re-opening and offering in-person classes. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, issued a preliminary injunction on behalf of the private schools claiming that this order was “both broad and without apparent precedent.”
“The court recognized this attempt to shut down private schools for what it is – a slap in the face to educational choice, an affront to families who believe that children should be in school, and a direct violation of parental rights,” said Thomas More Society Special Counsel Erick Kaardal.
The court also pointed out that the students, parents, and schools in question would be following any COVID-19 health and safety guidelines necessary in order to begin meeting in-person again.
“It is noteworthy that Petitioners went to great lengths—and expended non-negligible sums—to provide students, teachers, and staff the ability to resume in-person instruction with safety precautions in place,” one of the court’s opinions stated, also noting that schools, parents, and students have the opportunity to “voluntarily” make the choice to return to classroom instruction despite COVID-19 fears.
The supreme court, which covered three cases, James v. Heinrich, Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, et al. v. Heinrich, et al., and St. Ambrose Academy, Inc., et al. v. Parisi, et al., in the hearing, also ordered Dane County “to file a response to the court within 30 days.” Another hearing is expected in the near future.