Wisconsin K-12 Schools Largely Remain Open Thursday in Wake of Public Health Emergency

By Marisa Wojcik

March 12, 2020

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Students raise their hands in a Green Bay classroom.

UPDATE: Gov. Tony Evers directs the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm to mandate all K-12 schools close statewide.

The doors of Wisconsin’s K-12 schools will remain open, even with Gov. Tony Evers declaring a public health emergency Thursday due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

As of Thursday night, Ohio, Maryland and Kentucky declared statewide school closings. By Friday, Oregon, New Mexico and Michigan also closed schools statewide, with other individual districts and schools across the country scheduling closures as well. At least 10,600 schools and 4.9 million students are currently impacted nationally, according to data from Education Week. Those numbers are subject to change as the status of the 2019 novel coronavirus evolves in the United States.

School closure has remained in the hands of local districts and not directed by the state. State law allows school boards to close for an “emergency, fire or other casualty, quarantine, or epidemic.” The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said it is working closely with local health departments, who in turn are working with districts to determine appropriate measures to take on a local level. 

However, during a state of emergency the governor could exercise the power to close schools statewide. Evers expressed reluctance to do so when considering the impact of food security on certain populations.

“We have tens of thousands of folks in Wisconsin, including kids and older adults, who rely on schools and nonprofits in order to get their meals,” Evers said Thursday.

The Osceola School District closed Tuesday to conduct a deep cleaning after someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus attended a weekend event held at the high school. 

The Crandon School District announced it would be closed all day Friday to clean and disinfect the school “in light of all the precautions that are being recommended at the state level.” 

As of Thursday, the Crandon School District’s website also stated it would be limiting Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association girls state basketball tournament attendance to 88 family members of players.

DHS and Evers recommended during their announcement surrounding the public health emergency that all non-essential gatherings of 250 people or more be cancelled. 

“How we think about mass gatherings, proximity numbers of people and the ways that schools can remain open and and will remain open using tools and tactics so that they can continue to do the essential functions that they need to do, which is to teach our kids,” Andrea Palm, DHS Secretary-designee said during Thursday’s state of emergency announcement.

The State School Nurse and Health Services Consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has updated school district nursing staff with guidance for health protocols, including information on hygiene, travel, food handling and social distancing.

The Centers for Disease Control outlined different guidance for communities with schools that have and have not identified COVID-19, including plans for continuity of education.

Tools for extended absence or closures have been a part of statewide instructional plans, however, DPI has ramped up virtual learning plans as discussions of school closures circulate.DPI provides support around school district pandemic plans, how to talk to children about coronavirus and other resources on their 2019 novel coronavirus website.

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