Catholic high schools in Michigan sue over coronavirus order keeping them closed

Father Gabriel Richard High School Ann Arbor Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, one of the Lansing diocese's schools which have joined a suit against the Mich. health department. / Dwight Burdette via Wikimedia (PD).

Two high schools in the Diocese of Lansing have joined a lawsuit against a public health order keeping schools in Michigan closed for in-person learning, calling the order “scientifically, educationally and constitutionally unjustified.”

Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced Dec. 7 an extension of public health orders meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus until Dec. 20. The orders had originally gone into effect Nov. 18 and were due to expire at the end of the day Dec. 8, the Detroit Free Press reported.

They include continued restrictions on indoor dining as well as a 12-day extension of a ban on in-person learning for high schools, colleges, and universities.

Tom Maloney, the Lansing diocese's superintendent of schools, said that the order "confirms our fear that MDHHS will continue to make decisions about closing schools, and in our specific case Catholic schools, without regard to the obvious and proven efficacy of our local COVID-19 school safety plans nor the uniqueness of our mission-based schools which are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution – therefore we support our families and schools in challenging this decision in court."

Maloney added that "our high schools’ COVID-19 safety plans, with their robust health and safety protocols, are working well at protecting both our school communities and the community at large, while also ensuring that our young people can receive the in-person education and formation that is so irreplaceable to their spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and social development."

Lansing Catholic High School and Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor joined the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools in the suit, seeking protection for all MANS-member schools to reopen legally. MANS is an ecumenical group that represents over 400 schools in the state.

The schools argue in the lawsuit that the schools’ COVID-19 safety plans have largely prevented the spread of the virus, and say Whitmer’s order interferes with free religious exercise.

Lansing Catholic president Dominic Iocco commented that “All the evidence shows that during the three months we had in-person education at Lansing Catholic there were no COVID-19 outbreaks; no spread of COVID-19; and no hospitalizations of students or staff, thus adding no burden to our healthcare system.”

"We simply want to continue with our tried and tested COVID-19 safety plan to safely educate and form our students consistent with our constitutional religious liberties," he said.

John DeJak, Father Gabriel Richard president, said that “teachers and parents are becoming increasingly concerned by the damage that is being done to our children’s educational, emotional and mental wellbeing by not being in-person at school. And yet, to date, the state has still not explained why they have closed our high schools while allowing retail, fitness centers, tattoo parlors, hair salons, and other secular businesses to remain open.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said in a Dec. 7 release that during the 12-day extension, it would monitor the percentage of hospital beds with COVID patients, the number of COVID-19 cases, and the positivity rate. With improvements in those numbers, the department says it will “carefully reopen,” with in-person learning at high schools first.

"Our first priority should be getting students back in the classroom," Whitmer has said.

According to data in the lawsuit Lansing Catholic has recorded 15 positive cases during the fall semester. The school believes those cases were contracted off campus, and is” unaware of any spread of these cases within the school.” That school has 437 students and 43 faculty members.

Father Gabriel Richard High School has so far recorded 27 positive cases among 468 students and 47 faculty. The school says they believe the cases were contracted off campus and did not spread within the school.

Lansing Catholic and Father Gabriel Richard say they have incurred costs of $102,000 and $59,000 respectively to implement COVID-19 safety precautions. 

The Diocese of Lansing says they have recorded positive cases for 99 students and 35 faculty, staff, and coaches. According to the diocese, fewer than five of those cases are believed to have been contracted on campus, and “none of those cases were at high schools.”

Whitmer has issued nearly 200 executive orders since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The state Supreme Court invalidated all of Whitmer’s executive orders Oct. 12, but the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services subsequently revived some, including an elementary school mask mandate, as emergency epidemic orders.

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Michigan has 436,000 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Dec. 8.

In late October, Resurrection School in Lansing, along with two parents of children at the school, sued the state’s health department over a mandate that masks be worn continually during the school day, calling the requirement unnecessary, and harmful to its younger students.

Schools throughout the United States have grappled with what to do about in-person learning after the coronavirus pandemic caused nationwide shutdowns last March. Though the country saw a dip in coronavirus cases over the summer, recent surges this fall, shortly after classes resumed, have caused some schools to close again, and some states to reinstate lockdowns or stay-at-home orders.

Catholic schools have worked to put extensive health and safety regulations in place, including mandatory masking and social distancing, and virtual options for families who choose to keep their children at home. Some Catholic school leaders and bishops have argued that children have a right to in-person learning, which can help to ensure the quality of their education and to prevent their social isolation.

Some Catholic schools, such as those in Baltimore, have seen spikes in enrollment this fall because they are offering in-person learning more consistently than area public schools.
A Christian school in Kentucky argued this week that an order shuttering in-person education until Jan. 4 in Kentucky amid rising COVID-19 cases amounts to religious discrimination.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) temporarily halted in-person learning in the state by executive order. Beshear has defended his order, citing health risks and the order’s equal treatment of public and private schools and adding “we have taken the necessary actions to slow the growth in cases and save the lives of our fellow Kentuckians.”

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