Staff and parents whose children attend Catholic schools inside Milwaukee’s city limits were taken aback last week after it was revealed that in-person instruction may be prohibited when schools recommence classes this fall.

Marquette University High School parents organized a rally outside the Milwaukee Health Department on Monday, July 20, calling for schools to be allowed to reopen in the fall. (Submitted photo)

Most private and charter schools in the area had been operating under the assumption that the decision on whether or not to offer face-to-face learning would lie with their own administration. The city of Milwaukee is currently in Phase 4 of the public health and safety order known as Moving Milwaukee Forward, which utilizes a phased approach to reopening public spaces based on testing data, trending numbers of COVID-19 cases in the area and current hospital capacity.

Some communications, including a table detailing the order’s directives, issued by the City of Milwaukee Health Department earlier in the spring and summer had characterized Phase 4 as allowing in-person instruction, but when the order was actually released on June 25, the language mandated that “public and private K-12 schools shall remain closed for in-person pupil instruction and extracurricular activities until further notice.”

Several principals reported first hearing the news from colleagues on Wednesday, July 15, that the order would not be changed for fall.

“That morning, there was an informal chain of emails going around amongst several principals who had pieced it together,” said Dan Quesnell, principal at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School. “It was a huge surprise to all of us in private education,” said Heather Grams, principal at St. Sebastian School. “My understanding was that Phase 4 included in-person so long as you met certain criteria.”

Jeff Monday, president of Marquette University High School, had just presented his school’s reopening plan to parents via a Zoom meeting that very day. The intent was to begin the school year in “a hybrid scenario” with half of the students learning from classrooms and half learning from home, with all students alternating in-person attendance.

“Later in the day on July 15 we learned that the Milwaukee Health Department changed its orders to close schools effective immediately. We were greatly disappointed with the news given the planning and investment of time and infrastructure costs allocated to implement our plan,” said Monday. “We immediately needed to cancel athletic camps and student activities scheduled this week.”

On Friday, July 17, the City of Milwaukee Health Department issued a Phase 4 “assessment update” stating that “MHD has received several questions about in-person school sessions for the upcoming academic year. As long as we remain in Phase 4, schools are not permitted to hold in person sessions. This pertains to any school that is located in the city of Milwaukee.”

“I just think the communication was poor in that it took many of us by surprise and it was after MPS had announced they were opening virtually,” said Patrick Landry, president of Notre Dame School of Milwaukee. “That’s what the frustration is. I think all of us have been in pretty in-depth planning mode to have some kind of in-person instruction or even programming.”

Over the weekend, parents took to social media to voice their frustration with the health department’s decision, and the Marquette University High School Mothers Guild and Fathers Club organized a peaceful demonstration outside the health department offices for the morning of Monday, July 20.

“We were all completely stunned,” said Amy Merrick, whose children attend both MUHS and DSHA. She helped to plan the July 20 protest and estimated that more than 100 people attended. “Our schools are at risk of closing if our students go to their home school districts, which are all open or mostly open.”

Amy Schreiner, whose children attend St. Sebastian, reported being “stunned and confused” initially at the reports that the health department was prohibiting schools from opening, and had been active in contacting elected officials and the health department to voice her concerns over the weekend.

“The health department should be working directly with school administrators to come up with best practice solutions, as they have done with many other industries in the city, including bars and restaurants,” said Schreiner.

Concerns were raised that restricting Milwaukee schools to a virtual option would widen the “achievement gap” between students in urban schools and their suburban counterparts.

“As a parent, I’m having a difficult time balancing my feelings on how a mandate for the city of Milwaukee schools not only affects my child, but how it also forms even more of a disparity between those of us who choose to live in the city and those that choose to live in the suburbs,” said Danica Potier, a parent at St. Sebastian. “To come to terms with the fact that the City of Milwaukee Health Department has the authority to determine what type of education can be provided to children in this city is unnerving.”

“Frankly, I think it’s a justice issue,” said Grams. “Here you have students throughout Milwaukee, some of the neediest children who deserve a high-quality education in Milwaukee, and the schools don’t have the freedom to determine the decision on how to best educate their community, while our counterparts in the suburbs do. That’s only going to further widen the achievement gap.”

Representatives from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee were part of a small group of K-12 educators that met with City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Dr. Jeanette Kowalik on Monday, July 20, at the mayor’s office. The meetings were described as “promising” and explored options for allowing schools to submit in-person reopening plans for approval.

Kowalik addressed the concerns in a press call on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 21. She downplayed the discrepancy between the June order, the July 17 assessment update and the earlier communications that had contained contradictory information.

“The order is based off of levels of risk and the situation at that current moment. So on the 25th of June when the Phase 4 order was released, that’s when the table was updated. The health department learned last week that there was some older version of the table — the version that was developed for Phase 3 was circulating and that created some confusion,” she said. “At the end of the day, that order is what matters. That is the legal document. The table was developed to provide a quick-and-dirty of, this is what’s going on, but the order is what needs to be reviewed.”

As the city prepared to enter Phase 4 in late June, she said, the health department was only thinking of summer school when drafting that language prohibiting in-person instruction. “We knew that the state’s DPI was preparing to issue reopening guidance. We also knew that the CDC would be issuing some updated guidance. Without those two documents we didn’t feel it was appropriate to allow schools to open at that time. June 25, we’re thinking of summer school, we’re not thinking of fall yet.”

She condemned the “misinformation” that alleged “we were doing this in the dark or being malicious, which is totally not the case. The concern is there needs to be standard guidance on how to reopen safely.”

She said that the City of Milwaukee Health Department will issue an order for “Phase 4.1” that will address the schools issue and link reopening to following the guidance of the DPI, which was released on June 29, and the upcoming CDC guidelines.

Additionally, schools may apply for approval to reopen if their plans meet certain criteria.

“It’s important for us to make sure we’re following standard guidelines on reopening and not just pretty much leaving it for schools to figure out how to do it. That’s not fair,” said Kowalik. “Our kids deserve better than that. We have to make sure we’re doing it in a mindful and science-based way.”

Merrick said that she is “cautiously optimistic” following Kowalik’s address.

“We feel encouraged; we know that our plan is very comprehensive and it takes into account everything that needs to happen in order for the schools to open safely,” she said.

Quesnell also voiced confidence in Kowalik’s update. DSHA had already been developing a variety of options, including virtual and in-person instruction, as part of its back-to-school plan, he said. As part of preparations, DSHA is hiring additional maintenance staff, instituting more rigorous cleaning protocols, making adjustments to classrooms for increased social distancing and even preparing to do contact tracing.

“A chance to open is all we could ask for with all the confidence that we have a strong health and safety plan,” he said.

Monday said that the press conference “provided hope that we will be able to have our comprehensive plan approved to re-open our school soon for in-person learning, activities, and faith formation.” The MUHS plan was submitted for approval from the Milwaukee Health Department on July 22.

During the press conference, Kowalik called for all stakeholders to refrain from unkind aspersions or personal attacks, imploring parents, teachers and community members to keep their criticism constructive and polite.

It’s an important reminder especially for Catholics, said Schreiner.

“This isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ situation and it is important for everyone to work together and not against each other for the best solutions,” she said. “We all need to exercise patience, love and understanding.”