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No Secret Plan: Governor rejects false claims circulated by lawmakers to prohibit in-person classes

Governor Tony Evers reiterated recently that he has no plans to issue a statewide order forbidding schools from holding in-person classes this fall, despite statements to the contrary from Republican lawmakers.

Asked at a media briefing about a statement from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) voicing suspicion that Governor Evers would “flip-flop” on the issue, the governor replied: “I have no secret plan as he suggested.”

Governor Evers said he had been in touch regularly with the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) as well as leaders of school districts around the state about their plans for the fall to operate safely amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am extraordinarily pleased with the conversations that school districts across the state are having, not only with their teachers and faculty members, but making sure that the community is involved,” he said during the briefing, conducted with the state Department of Health Services (DHS). “Many school districts are involving students in the decision making. So I think the process is going well, and I’m looking forward to having further conversations and seeing how things go going forward.”

The claim that Governor Evers would mandate a statewide shift to only virtual learning surfaced when state Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), without offering substantiating evidence, charged in a press release that there were “growing indications from education sources” that Governor Evers would use the Emergency Public Health Declaration that the governor announced last week “to prohibit schools, public and private, from starting the year with in-person classes.”

Governor Evers flatly rejected the claim when asked about it in an interview with Milwaukee news outlets.

Urban districts going online

Several large urban districts, including Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Kenosha, have decided to start the school year in the fall with an all-virtual schedule, while many smaller districts are still planning on in-person classes. “And just about every school offers a remote option,”Governor Evers said.

The governor said he was willing for school districts to make those decisions individually because of their diversity in size.

“All school districts look different,”Governor Evers said. Many small districts in the state “already have small class sizes, or they already have the opportunity to keep kids physically distant” — 6 feet apart or more to reduce the chance of spreading the virus.

By contrast, the statewide mandatory mask order that took effect on  August 1, recognizes that “the virus is every place in the state of Wisconsin, it’s taking a toll every place in Wisconsin,”Governor Evers said.

At the briefing, Governor Evers spoke of emails he has received from people around the state supporting the mask order, including health care workers and business leaders, the latter of whom wanted it to further protect their employees. As he did when Governor Evers first announced the mask order on July 30, Ryan Nilsestuen, chief legal counsel for the governor’s office, downplayed the role of law enforcement with respect to carrying out the order, and declarations by some county sheriffs that they would not make arrests for people flouting it.

The state statute authorizing the governor to make the order does include a civil forfeiture of up to $200 that a district attorney, if a case is referred, could seek, he said.

“There’s strong broad support for face coverings across the state,” Nilsestuen added. “We’ve heard that from people across Wisconsin, we’ve heard it from constituents. We’ve heard it from business leaders. So I think while there are some sheriffs or other people who like to make a lot of noise about either enforcing or not enforcing it, the fact is, I think most people get it. They understand that wearing a face covering is a very small action that collectively can have a really big impact on combating this disease.”

Mask resistance

Fitzgerald has said he would seek to call the state Senate back into an extraordinary session to pass a resolution throwing out both the mask order and the broader health emergency executive order under which it was declared.

“I think that would be a significant mistake,” Governor Evers said. “We all know that. wearing a mask is an important way to mitigate against the spread and transmission of this virus. We have lots of things we want to do in this state: making sure our kids have good education, making sure that our businesses are strong and making sure that we can have economic recovery — and one of the ways to do that is to wear a mask.”

Whether the Legislature will move ahead on that, however, is still unclear. So far Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has not yet publicly indicated whether he and Assembly Republicans would join with Fitzgerald in a resolution overturning the orders Vos also has indicated he would leave it to private organizations if any want to sue to block the governor.

In a poll released in June,  68% agree that masks should be required in public. At a DHS media briefing, Governor Evers emphasized the mask order could help make it possible for businesses to stay open and for schools to have more options when classes start, including offering in-person classes.

“If people want to have a successful school year, and beginning of the school year,” he said, they should be “wearing a mask, [staying] physically distant from each other, and also not going into places where you have a whole bunch of people without masks on in a small place. It’s all problem areas. So let’s get together, be good about this issue. And have a good school year.”

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