Twice a week for three months, the administration of St. Ambrose Academy in Wisconsin met with Dane County public health officials to ensure that they would be ready to reopen at the start of the school year - which was supposed to happen this week.

They drafted a 35-page plan to mitigate the risks of the coronavirus, including regulations on the flow of students, social distancing, personal protective equipment, and regular cleaning and sanitization. They leased a second building, so that their 115 students could social distance even more. The plan was released to parents, who could choose to send their students to school in person or online.

But on the evening of Aug. 21, days before the school year was set to start for St. Ambrose Academy and other private schools in the county, Public Health Madison-Dane County released Emergency Order #9, mandating that grades 3-12 begin the year online. Only grades kindergarten through second are permitted to meet in person.

"Within hours after the order was announced, I had emails in my inbox from our parents," Angela Hineline told CNA. Hineline is a long-time St. Ambrose parent, as well as the learning services specialist and enrollment manager for the school. 

"We are following all guidelines and had the rug pulled out from underneath us after hours, great expense, even renting another site," she said. "We are a shoestring budget school; we have a very, very tight budget, and 55% of our students are on assistance."

St. Ambrose Academy announced Aug. 26 that they had filed a demand letter on behalf of their school and multiple other Catholic schools, seeking the immediate revocation of the emergency order "by no later than Friday, August 28, 2020, at 12:00 p.m, 'Given the unconstitutionality and unlawfulness of the School Closure Order,' citing harm to 'parents, children, and schools across the County.'"

Hineline said the demand letter cites the "freedom of conscience" clauses in the Wisconsin Constitution as the basis for the school's argument, as well as other clauses that provide for school choice and religious freedom. 

"The Wisconsin Constitution freedom of conscience clauses provide that the right of every person to worship almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted," Hineline said, quoting the letter of demand.

There are also clauses in the state's constitution that "subject any law burdening religious exercise to strict scrutiny, prohibiting the government from enforcing the law unless it demonstrates that such enforcement furthers a compelling government interest in a narrowly tailored way. Further, all parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the care and upbringing of their children, which includes the rights to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control," Hineline said.

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The letter also cites the sacraments, which must take place in person, as crucial to the religious education of children.

"All of my client-parents are devout, practicing Catholics, whose faith compels them to seek religious education for their children," the letter states. "Only in-person education satisfies that solemn obligation, as only in person may these students receive Holy Communion at Mass, confess their sins to a priest through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or pray together in the community of fellow students and teachers." 

Hineline said that St. Ambrose Academy is preparing to fight the order in the state's Supreme Court, should it not be rescinded by noon on Aug. 28. The school has already raised nearly $100,000 to cover legal fees, she said.

Dane County is one of the 11 counties that comprise the Diocese of Madison. It is the second-largest county in Wisconsin.

Bishop Donald Hying of Madison tweeted his frustration with the emergency order Aug. 22. In a subsequent letter to families affected by the order, Hying said he was "extraordinarily disappointed at this order and its timing," and that he was permitting schools in Dane County to delay their first day of school until after Labor Day if they wish to do so.

"We're asking for relief that we can open on September 8th," Hineline said.

Among the parents most concerned about the ban on in-person learning are "single parents that have to work and then would have no one to supervise their children," Hineline noted, as well as "parents with children with special needs that know that the only way for their child's learning needs to be met (is) in person due to their child's unique challenges."

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Hineline said one parent who reached out in concern about the order is a single, low-income mother who did not finish high school because of dyslexia. Now one of her children, a student at St. Ambrose, also has dyslexia, and she is worried that he will not get the help he needs if he is not allowed to attend school in person while she works.

"Her greatest fear is that her own son...could end up being somebody who doesn't graduate," Hineline said. "The worry is real. This is not a parent who has access to resources without us." Hineline said she wrote down the mother's testimony, because the mother did not want to write it down herself, due to her dyslexia.

"She's never even voted because...she's afraid she won't be able to understand the ballot system. This is just one mother's way to have her voice, to say, 'The best thing I can do, the most safe, mature, stable way for me to raise my child and to take care of my child's needs is for my child to be in his Catholic school with in person education,'" she said.

When asked about the government's interest in stopping the spread of the coronavirus, Hineline said that the school's in-person plans had met stringent county requirements, and that other businesses and even childcare facilities were being allowed to open following those same requirements.

"The order continues to allow childcare and youth settings to open," Hineline said. "Remarkably, the order even allows...we could use our same building as childcare and youth setting, just not as school. That's an interesting aspect to the order; children can be in school for childcare with teachers, but they can't be in school for education with teachers."

The emergency order itself states that school children have low rates of infection with the coronavirus.

"While research on school-aged children continues to emerge and evolve, a number of systematic reviews have found that school-aged children contract COVID at lower rates than older populations," the order states. "Locally, as of August 20, 2020, nine percent of all COVID cases were among children aged 0-17 in Dane County. This population comprises 22% of the county population overall."

Hineline said St. Ambrose Academy had always planned to have a virtual learning option for parents if they so choose, but that they believe it is important to provide in-person learning to the students and families who need it most.

"This isn't one size fits all," she said. "We do believe that we are essential. We are essential virtually, for those families that need us virtually for their family's safety, security, stability. We are essential for our families that need us in person. We are essential in the development of a child."

"As Catholic parents, we believe faith and academics are inseparable. We believe that parents should be able to choose how to best nurture their child's spiritual life in the Church and in the classroom," Hineline said, quoting a statement from the school's parents responding to the demand letter. "Online instruction can deliver content, but not the depth of Catholic faith and values. Fundamental religious liberty has been protected by courts throughout American history. We shouldn't have to spend the money defending this basic right, but we will see it through. We are talking about the health, the safety, and the security of children."