The Bishop of Madison expressed his frustration this weekend after Dane County, Wisconsin, ordered all schools in the county to start the academic year online. The county issued the order Friday, giving local Catholic schools less than three day’s notice before the beginning of the academic year.
“Last night, Dane County ordered the closure of all schools, giving us 60 hours notice. Our schools were poised to open safely and responsibly. COVID data does not support this decision,” tweeted Bishop Donald Hying on August 22.
In a subsequent letter, mailed to families at affected schools and published on the diocesan Facebook page, Hying explained that on the evening of Friday, August 21, Public Health Madison-Dane County released Emergency Order #9, mandating that grades 3-12 begin the year online. Only grades kindergarten through second are permitted to meet in person.
Hying said he was “extraordinarily disappointed at this order and its timing,” and that he was permitting schools in Dane County to delay their first day of school until after Labor Day if they wish to do so.
Other Catholic schools in the diocese are set to open the week of August 24.
Dane County is one of the 11 counties that comprise the Diocese of Madison. It is the second-largest county in the state of Wisconsin.
“As you know, Catholic schools were preparing to open in-person, with many starting this coming week. We know that you believe that being in school, in-person, is the most effective and nurturing environment for your children,” said Hying, adding that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Centers for Disease Control, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all agree with this conclusion.
The order to go online-only, said Hying, came despite the principals and superintendent of the Madison diocese’s schools working with state officials over three months to ensure a safe reopening of schools for the coming school year.
“Our principals and teachers worked tirelessly to draft, revise, and perfect re-opening plans, ensuring that all CDC, DHS, and county guidelines were followed, and that no detail was overlooked in order to make our schools safe for students and teachers,” said the bishop. These efforts cost “tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Hying claimed that county officials refused throughout the month of July to provide metrics that would determine whether or not schools would be permitted to open for in-person classes. Dane County only provided these metrics on August 21, after many parents had begun to return to work.
The order to close schools for in-person learning came the day after it was announced that “the daily number of coronavirus cases had dropped by nearly 50% since July 13,” noted Hying. The seven-day average of new cases had been declining as well, he said.
“Yet now, despite declining numbers and all the work and diligence given to following all the guidelines for re-opening, Dane County has said that only grades K-2 may return,” he said.
Hying urged Catholics to contact the county executive to express their displeasure with the decision, and said that the diocese will “explore all of our options” in regard to the executive order.
This is the second time the Diocese of Madison has confronted Dane County over coronavirus reopening measures.
On June 3, attorneys from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, acting for the diocese, sent a 17-page letter to Dane County officials and the mayor of Madison on Wednesday, threatening to file suit against the city and county over restrictions placed on houses of worship.
Emergency Order 3, issued by Dane County on May 22, classified religious services as “mass gatherings,” legally akin to rock concerts.
The order capped all religious services at a 50-person limit but “essential businesses,” including trampoline parks and shopping malls, were permitted to operate at 25% of the listed fire capacity during the same phase.
Following the diocese’s threatened suit, Dane County issued Emergency Order #4 on June 5, which “makes a clarification with respect to religious services.”
“Religious worship services will no longer be categorized as a ‘mass gathering.’ All restrictions applicable to businesses will continue to apply to religious services,” the county said on June 5.