MADISON — When a GOP-led lawsuit struck down Safer at Home, Wisconsin Republican leadership said they mainly protested the statewide approach to contain COVID-19 taken by Gov. Tony Evers and the Department of Health Services.
Now, Republicans are, again, fearing the state’s Democrat-led leadership are going to take decision-making out of local hands.
Many Republicans believe that the data being cited by state leadership to make these health decisions are so flawed they cannot be trusted, repeatedly pointing to how Dane County was late in reporting more than 17,000 negative tests that when finally included in Dane County’s counts dropped the weekly positive test rate from around 6% to barely more than 2%. As such, Sen. Steve Nass, a Whitewater Republican whose district includes the southwestern corner of Racine County; Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine; and others say that the state’s data shouldn’t be trusted.
“They’re using bad numbers,” Mike Mikalsen, chief of staff for Sen. Nass, told The Journal Times Monday.
Nass stated Monday that “alarm bells” are going off with his sources in education “that Gov. Evers will use his Emergency Public Health Declaration (Executive Order 82) to prohibit schools, public and private, from starting the year with in-person classes.”
This claim is not universally believed amongst even the GOP, however. In a statement, state Rep. Bob Wittke, R-Wind Point, said, “At this time, I have no indication Governor Evers or the Department of Health Services will issue an order to close schools.”
Spokespeople for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not respond to requests for comment in time for press Monday.
In mid-July, Evers said that he does “anticipate schools will open by early September.”
School districts across the nation are frantically compiling back-to-school plans. Racine Unified and Kenosha Unified have already said they won’t have students in their schools, at least at the start of the school year in the fall. Other local school districts — like Union Grove School District, Burlington Area School District and Siena Catholic Schools — are planning the opposite approach, hoping to have some version of in-person learning this fall with some virtual options.
Politicized debate rages
On Monday, a caravan led by teachers unions from Racine, Kenosha, Madison and Milwaukee traveled to Madison to pressure the governor into preventing in-school education this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic “until scientific and public-health data supports” reopening schools.
Among the caravan’s demands were items unrelated to the pandemic, including removing police from schools, a moratorium on new charter or voucher programs that draw money away from traditional public schools, and increasing taxes on billionaires and using that money to fund public schools.
“The pandemic has exposed how underfunded and under-resourced public schools are while laying bare the racial and economic inequities our schools and communities face,” the Kenosha Education Association stated.
“We see this as an opportunity to make things better for public schools,” Racine Educators Association President Angelina Cruz told The Journal Times after Monday’s caravan regarding the expanded list of demands.
Mikalsen said that Whitewater’s senator has been “connecting the dots” and that he believes the timing of the caravan immediately following the issuing of a statewide mask mandate is intended to show more support than actually exists for having schools closed in the fall.
“This is about politics. Not about health, this is about politics,” Mikalsen claimed.
Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, disagrees fully with Nass’ assertions. She still trusts the advice from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and other health organizations, and that the governor is acting to protect lives and not acting on a political basis.
“As our community and our state fight back against COVID-19, we must continue to follow the latest public health guidance in our decision-making. I’m grateful for the thorough, thoughtful approach RUSD has taken toward the 2020-21 school year, and I’m confident that this will continue,” Neubauer stated. “Since this pandemic arrived in March, Gov. Evers has led with science and has listened to the experts. While Sen. Nass and many of his Republican colleagues continue to politicize necessary public health actions, I am confident that Gov. Evers and RUSD will continue to follow public health experts and the latest data to keep our community safe.”
Mikalsen said that the education leaders participating in Monday’s caravan have been the ones politicizing the pandemic, not the reverse.
Those mirroring accusations, of each party blaming the other for making something “political,” have becoming the norm in Wisconsin’s divided Legislature.
Cruz replied to that claim of politicizing the pandemic.
“People are going to die. They shouldn’t be playing politics with our kids,” she said. “Educators are worried about physical health and well-being. ... Teachers want to know that they’re not going to get sick and die by reporting to work.”
Polling of RUSD parents are almost evenly divided about sending their kids back to school. A July “Family Survey” with 4,554 individual responses showed that 29% of RUSD parents/guardians prefer hybrid learning, 35.3% want education to be entirely face-to-face and 35.7% want entirely remote learning. The responses were similarly evenly divided for parents of elementary, middle and high school students about how comfortable they felt about the idea of sending their kids back to school in person.
Wittke, a first-term Republican in the Assembly who previously served as president of the Racine Unified School Board, stated “Personally, I believe we need to find ways to safely open schools for in-person education this fall.”
Mikalsen made the claim that, by closing schools and making the country appear to be in worse shape, then voters are more likely to cast ballots for change (thus ousting President Donald Trump) in November. Also, he claimed that leadership in Wisconsin’s largest teachers unions fear they will look foolish if they aren’t open and other school districts/private schools have in-person classes. As such, Mikalsen claimed that that pressure would motivate Evers to cancel in-person education statewide to prevent that visible discrepancy.
However, Cruz pointed out that the demands for canceling in-person schooling are not new in the past two weeks and that the governor’s office had no input into Monday’s caravan or related demonstrations.
In mid-July, unions representing teachers from Wisconsin’s five largest school districts (including the Racine Educators Association) delivered a letter to state leaders that called for an all-virtual start to the year. On Monday, an updated letter with similar demands was delivered to the Department of Health Services, this time with signatures from even more school districts.
This debate is ongoing nationwide.
On Monday in Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan banned counties from issuing “blanket closures of schools,” the Baltimore Sun reported.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has also said that most school campuses in the state would not be allowed to open at the beginning of the school year, although the Orange County Board of Education is suing to fight Newsom’s order.