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Gov. Evers orders closure of public schools across Wisconsin

March 14, 2020 GMT
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A masked pedestrian walks near Camp Randall Stadium Thursday, March 12, 2020 on the campus of UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. The university is one of multiple Wisconsin universities on Wednesday took dramatic steps to ward off or curb the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, everything from moving courses online to canceling university-sponsored travel and events to extending spring break. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)
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A masked pedestrian walks near Camp Randall Stadium Thursday, March 12, 2020 on the campus of UW-Madison in Madison, Wis. The university is one of multiple Wisconsin universities on Wednesday took dramatic steps to ward off or curb the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, everything from moving courses online to canceling university-sponsored travel and events to extending spring break. (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel via AP)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers on Friday ordered all of Wisconsin’s K-12 schools to close by next week in the hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, a move that will affect nearly a million students and their families for at least the next several weeks.

The order marks what’s likely the first time in state history that a governor has forced every school in the state to close in the face of a public health emergency. State Department of Public Instruction spokesman Chris Bucher said an archive search Friday turned up no other instances of statewide closures under such circumstances.

The governor set April 6 as a potential reopening date, but that’s uncertain given the virus’ spread. State health officials announced earlier Friday that the number of confirmed infections in the state had more than doubled over the previous 24 hours.

Even if the closure lasts only a few weeks, it raises far-reaching questions for the roughly 975,664 students spread across the state’s public and private schools. Students who lack broadband access may be left out if districts opt for online instruction models. Parents will have to scramble to find child care or arrange to work from home, potentially risking their paychecks or employment. Low-income students who rely on school meals will have to find other sources of food. And it’s unclear whether teachers and faculty will be able come in to work.

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If the closure stretches into the spring it could jeopardize state assessment tests, final exams and graduations. Districts may have to seek a waiver from the minimum hours of instruction mandated in state law or stretch the school year into the summer.

State health officials said during a conference call with reporters ahead of Evers’ order that they want to slow the spread of the virus to ensure the state’s health care system isn’t overwhelmed with cases. Evers, a former state schools superintendent and teacher, said in a statement that he didn’t make the decision to close schools lightly.

“Keeping our kids, our educators, our families, and our communities safe is a top priority as we continue our work to respond to and prevent further spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin,” the governor said, referring to the disease the caused by the coronavirus.

At least nine other states have closed schools in response to the virus’ spread, including Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Michigan, West Virginia, Virginia and Louisiana. More than a dozen suburban Milwaukee districts closed their schools Friday ahead of Evers’ decision. They said in a joint statement that the closures will begin Monday and will run until at least April 13.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild cases recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe cases may take three to six weeks to get better.

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Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said Evers’ closure order is understandable as health officials work to keep people from spreading the virus through large groups.

“(But) there are all kinds of dislocation issues that will have to be dealt with,” he said. “There are lots of unanswered questions at this point.”

Deputy State Schools Superintendent Mike Thompson said in a phone interview that districts have been planning for the closure order for several days.

He said they’re developing plans to continue to provide meals for students who depend on them while maintaining social distancing. As for instructional hours, the DPI can grant waivers from instructional hour minimums to districts upon request, he said. The agency could conceivably issue a statewide waiver but Thompson said officials don’t want to go that route since it would require suspending administrative rules. Different districts have different calendars and may have amassed different hourly totals by this point in the school year.

Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teacher union, said in an email that Evers made the right decision to keep students and staff safe.

The Wisconsin Parent-Teachers Association didn’t immediately respond to a phone message early Friday evening.

State Department of Health Services officials said during the conference call that 19 people in Wisconsin have now tested positive for the virus, up from eight on Thursday. Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer for communicable diseases, said health officials are investigating transmission vectors, but he does not believe community spread — or the spread of a disease where the source is unknown — has occurred yet.

The school closure order capped a week of upheaval in Wisconsin as health officials canceled one event after another to prevent large numbers of people from congregating.

A number of universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marquette, canceled face-to-face instruction and warned students not to return to their dorms following spring breaks. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association canceled the girls state high school championship tournament after the first day of games and scuttled the boys tournament scheduled for March 19-21.

In other developments Friday, the state Department of Corrections ended all non-professional inmate visits at state prisons and the state Supreme Court issued an order limiting attendees at oral arguments. DHS advised long-term care facilities to limit ban any non-essential visitors except in end-of-life situations or when the visitor is essential to a resident’s emotional well-being and care and screen all visitors for COVID-19 symptoms.

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Associated Press writer Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.