'We must be very cautious:' Milwaukee schools face reopening questions as youth virus cases rises

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee health officials said on Tuesday, July 21 that people ages 10-19 might be spreading the coronavirus at higher rates than any other age group. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County has now recorded more daily cases over the past week than at any other time during the pandemic.

Health officials announced that they've seen an 84% increase in the past week in the number of COVID-19 cases among the 10-19 years old age group in Milwaukee County.

"So what does this mean for childhood summer activities and return to school? It means we must be very cautious," said Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services with the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

Jeanette Kowalik

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik doubled-down on the city's current safety order, which prohibits all public and private K-12 schools in the city from holding in-person classes this fall.

On June 25, the Milwaukee Health Department made its reopening plans for schools stricter while it waited on updated guidelines from the CDC and the state.

"Without those two documents, we didn't feel it was appropriate to allow schools to open at that point in time," said Kowalik.

However, Milwaukee Public Schools and several private schools in the city said they were not aware of the change until recently.

"We stumbled upon that last week. We were fully prepared to open our building to students in a hybrid fashion and we were surprised by the order change," Katherine Konieczny, president of Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, said.

Kowalik called that narrative unfortunate, and insists that her department communicated the changes and that the focus a month-and-a-half ago was very different than what it is now.

"Remember, at that time, again, June 25, we're thinking of summer school, we're not thinking of fall yet," Kowalik said.

The Milwaukee Health Department is working on a revised, more detailed safety order that will be released in the coming week and will address several issues, including schools. Schools can also submit their own reopening plans for review by the health department. If approved, those schools may reopen in the fall.