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Private schools want Dane Co. in-person school limits tossed

A group of parents and private religious schools wants the Wisconsin Supreme Court to nullify a Dane County order barring in-person classes for most students.

The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a petition Wednesday on behalf of 14 parents and five religious schools as well as interest groups for the state’s school-voucher program and religious schools.

The petition is specifically challenging the authority of Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, after she issued an order allowing schools to offer in-person instruction to grades three through 12 only under certain conditions.

The order, which took effect Monday, applies almost entirely to private schools, since public schools in Dane County already decided to start the year online for almost all students in almost all grades.

In the WILL petition and a separate one filed on behalf of the Fitchburg mother Sara Lindsey James on Tuesday, attorneys argue Heinrich has no authority under state law to close schools and that the Public Health order runs counter to the decision the state Supreme Court made in May striking down the statewide stay-at-home order.

“This case challenges the authority of one unelected bureaucrat to upend the education plans of thousands of students and their families and their schools located throughout Dane County via the stroke of a pen,” the petition said.

The petitioners simultaneously filed an Emergency Motion for a Temporary Injunction, asking the state Supreme Court to prohibit provisions in the emergency order that are preventing students from attending in-person classes.

“Given that this order came out after some schools in Dane County had begun in person instruction, and just days before many others were set to begin, Petitioners are suffering and will continue to suffer irreparable harm if the challenged provisions of Emergency Order #9 are not immediately enjoined for which no adequate remedy at law is available,” the emergency motion said.

Public Health denied to comment on the lawsuits.

The state Supreme Court ordered Heinrich to file a response to the petition by 4 p.m. on Friday. Justices Rebecca Dallet, Ann Walsh Bradley and Jill Karofsky dissented, saying they thought more time was needed for the response.

About Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at mpaukner@wislawjournal.com.

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