To say that staff, students and parents at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School in Monona are disappointed is an understatement.

With the intention to open for in-person education Monday, Aug. 31, all plans have been put on hold as school and Madison Diocese officials form a response to Public Health Madison & Dane County’s (PHMDC) emergency order that requires all students in grades 3-12 start fall classes online.

“With all the work that has been spent all summer on planning for in-person classes and to have the rug pulled out from under us is devastating,” said Callie Meiller, IHM principal.

In the late afternoon of Friday, Aug. 21, PHMDC issued an emergency order requiring all county schools to begin the school year virtually for students in grades 3-12, closing them to in-person pupil instruction. Grades K-2 may have in-person pupil instruction, with precautions outlined in the order.

The Madison Catholic Diocese announced plans to file a lawsuit over the order.

IHM was preparing for a Monday, Aug. 31, first day of classes, but some other schools had planned a first day for Monday, Aug. 24.

“We know that you believe that being in school, in-person, is the most effective and nurturing environment for your children. This was affirmed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, and even the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, all of which recommend opening schools for in-person instruction,” wrote the Most Rev. Donald Hying, bishop of Madison, and Michael Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools, to parents Saturday, Aug. 22.

“On numerous occasions since early July, county officials were asked to provide the metrics that would be used regarding closing and opening schools, with regard to COVID-19. These were not provided until Friday,” Hying and Lancaster wrote.

Two days before the emergency order was issued, Dane County announced the daily number of coronavirus cases had dropped by nearly 50% since July 13, while the seven-day average of new cases continued to decline.

“During the last three months, our principals and superintendent participated twice each week in conference calls with Public Health, the DPI, and DHS,” said the bishop and superintendent. “We asked questions, adjusted plans as guidance changed, and made sure we had the latest information. 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. Tens of thousands of dollars have already been spent to meet these guidelines.”

The diocese said all Catholic schools in the county could postpone the first day of school until after Labor Day, which is now the plan for IHM.

“We won’t have classes next week, but we will have child care,” Meiller said. “We don’t want to leave our parents hanging. It will be run by our teachers almost like an enrichment summer camp.”

PHMDC and CDC guidelines will be followed.

Earlier this year, the diocese threatened a lawsuit over a PHMDC order on the size of worship services, and PHMDC backed off rather than fight the lawsuit.

A May 22 order limited worship services to no more than 50 people, while other businesses were allowed to reopen with a ceiling of 25 percent of building capacity.

Two days after attorneys issued a letter of protest on behalf of the diocese, the health department responded by changing the limit to 25 percent of capacity.

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