Lisa Pudlo’s son was three days into his in-person education at Our Redeemer Lutheran School when they got the call last Friday night: Their son, who is in grades 3-12, would be required to learn from home starting that following Monday, Aug. 31, based on county requirements.
Pudlo and other Fitchburg residents told their stories to the City of Fitchburg Common Council at its Tuesday, Aug. 25, meeting, during the public comment period, after they and a group of half a dozen others demonstrated outside the building prior.
“We had started school on Wednesday already,” Pudlo said. “It’s extremely disruptive – everyone works in our family, a lot – personally, I start my busy schedule – Labor Day through Christmas, I work 60-70 hours a week.”
“My son has focus issues, so a classroom is where he’s going to get the best attention,” Pudlo added.
Resident and parent Nicholas DiMiceli, whose significant other Sarah James has filed a petition with the state Supreme Court against Public Health Madison and Dane County over the order, said they weren’t protesting the city. Instead, they hoped alders could show some support in asking the county to reconsider its decision to require grades 3-12 to start the year with virtual learning only.
“The rug got pulled out from under us even after when my kids started school,” he told the Star prior to the meeting. “All of a sudden it’s like, you can’t go back on Monday… it is an perpetual encroachment on our personal liberties, to be able to make decisions on our own, as families.”
The county’s order, released on Friday, Aug. 21, prohibits any school, including private ones, from starting the year in-person for grades 3-12, and it requires schools to provide a virtual option for grades K-2. The order also provides metrics that will determine when other grades can be brought back to school in-person.
“Moving students in grades 3-12 to virtual learning is not a step we take lightly, as schools provide critical services, and in-person instruction offers unparalleled opportunities and structure for students and parents,” Janel Heinrich, director of PHMDC, said in a news release. “Given our current case count, we believe moving students in grades 3-12 to virtual learning is necessary for the safety of our community.”
Students in grades K-2 will be allowed to attend based on lower transmission rates than older children, the release states. County staff have determined that older children have been found to transmit COVID-19 at rates similar to adults when looking at data from the state Department of Health Services, Harvard Global Health Institute and the Minnesota Department of Public Health.
But if the number of cases averages more than 54 in a two-week period in Dane County, grades K-2 might be required to switch to virtual learning only as well, the release states.
To bring back additional grades, the number of new daily cases would need to decrease and remain steady for a four-week period. For grades 3-5, new daily cases would need to sustain a 14-day average of 39 cases a day for four weeks in a row, and for grades 6-12, the average of permissible cases drops to 19.
James’ petition to the state Supreme Court claims that Heinrich acted outside of the limits of her authority by issuing an order that infringes on the fundamental rights to an education and worship under the state’s constitution. The petition also claims that there was no known “emergency” that caused students to be sent home after being able to return to the classroom last week.
County executive Joe Parisi said in a news release from Wednesday, Aug. 26, that the order from Heinrich is lawful and the county will defend it vigorously.
“We all want schools and workplaces to be fully open and life the way we knew it to resume,” Parisi said in the release. “Until that happens, we don’t want families to go through the harrowing weeks of having loved ones on ventilators. We have seen rates of infection come down here, not by accident, but because of decisive actions.”
Resident and parent Brian Bircher told the Star before speaking at the meeting that he feels that the case counts are low enough for students to safely return to school. He pointed to what New York state is doing, which at one point during the COVID-19 pandemic was considered the epicenter for the United States, where a safety plan and having the infection rate stay below 5% over a two-week period was what was required to reopen schools.
“We have done what we needed to do in Dane County to hit the numbers, and make it low enough to make it safe to reopen – we’ve seen that happen since the mask mandate went into effect,” he said. “I think there’s ways everyone can work together to keep things safe and still have a very important experience for kids.”