A State Supreme Court ruling Thursday, blocking a Dane County public order that had closed schools due to COVID-19, could hasten the return of Cambridge students to school buildings. 

Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said in an email this morning that Cambridge administrators began planning before the State Supreme Court ruling to possibly bring all students in grades 3-12 back to class in-person at Cambridge High School. 

The Dane County order issued in late August closed schools to children in grades 3 and up. It was later amended to allow special education students to return to buildings in-person. 

The Cambridge School District is split by the Dane-Jefferson County line, with Cambridge Elementary, Nikolay Middle and Koshkonong Trails charter school in Dane County, and the high school in Jefferson County. Jefferson County has  COVID-19 school closure guidelines but no legal restrictions.

Nikolay confirmed that administrators and the school board’s curriculum committee began discussing at a Sept. 9 meeting the possibility of bringing all students in grades 3-12 back in person at the high school building. 

“We began working on the details of a plan to do that yesterday,” Nikolay wrote in an email Friday morning. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision may have negated that plan, he said.

“If that is the case, and we are reviewing what it means now, we should be able to go back to our original plan,” Nikolay said. 

Nikolay said that if the Supreme Court ruling stands, administrators would return to the reopening plan the school board approved in late July, which would bring sixth and ninth-grade students back to their respective school buildings in mid-September, with other grades returning at one-week intervals after that. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily suspended a Dane County order that requires children in third grade and up, who are not in special education, to attend school virtually due to COVID-19.

In a 4-3 decision released Thursday, the court's conservative-backed majority issued a temporary injunction that allows schools in Dane County to open all grade levels immediately. The injunction was ordered while the high court considers a legal challenge brought by religious school groups and parents. 

In a release Thursday, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said “tonight's decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court will put kids and teachers back in group settings just as this pandemic hits a new peak in this community."

“Dane County reported a record 456 new cases of COVID-19 today. Our one county accounted for one third of all of Wisconsin's cases, as test positivity rates hit new highs. This virus is here and it's spreading. The short-term effects have been well documented, but now scientists are also sounding alarm over the long-term health consequences of this virus like premature heart disease," Parisi said. 

“Public Health's order prioritized the safety and well-being of kids, parents, teachers, and the communities they call home. Tonight’s order will jeopardize those goals and may lead to more illness and needless human suffering," Parisi continued. "Public Health's order prioritized the safety and well-being of kids, parents, teachers, and the communities they call home. Tonight's order will jeopardize those goals and may lead to more illness and needless human suffering."

In a release Thursday night, Public Health Madison and Dane County said it is "disappointed in this decision and strongly urge all schools to continue voluntary phasing-in of classes for in-person instruction for grades 3-12 per Public Health Madison & Dane County recommendations." 

“The purpose of these orders has been and continues to be to protect the health and safety of our communities,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County. “We don’t have a vaccine. We don’t have an effective treatment. In the absence of other options, and a dramatic increase in recent cases, limiting gatherings and person-to-person interactions continues to be the essential part of controlling the spread of COVID-19.”

In a release Friday, a national not-for-profit law firm “dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty,” called the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision a victory” for private schools, students, and school families. 

The Thomas More Society said in a release that Dane County sought in its school closure order “to ban private schools, religious and independent, from providing in-person, in-classroom education to students and families that desire it and are willing to pay for it.”

“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, who is part of the team representing the independent schools and their constituencies and working directly with St. Ambrose Academy, one of the schools that brought the suit against the county.

 “We are pleased that the court has seen the problems with Dane County’s illegal order and has issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the county from enforcing it,”  Thomas More Society Executive President and General Counsel Andrew Bath said.


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