Evers: No plan to close schools, will let locals decide
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers pushed back Tuesday against Republican claims that he’s secretly planning to shut down Wisconsin schools this fall, saying he’s content to let local officials decide whether to offer in-person or online instruction as the coronavirus continues to spread across the state.
Evers on Saturday declared a state of emergency to give himself the authority to impose a statewide mask mandate. Republican legislators have decried the mandate as an affront to personal liberty and fear the governor will next use his emergency powers to shutter schools and force them to offer online instruction only. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has called for an extraordinary legislative session to end the state of emergency; Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has yet to agree to such a session, however.
Evers tried to defuse GOP concerns during a video conference with reporters. He said it’s impossible to know how bad the pandemic will be by Sept. 1 — giving himself an out — but said he has no secret plans to close schools and he’s confident local leaders can make their own decisions.
“I wouldn’t pay attention to this conversation between Scott Fitzgerald and myself,” Evers said. “We can have all this back and forth at the state level, it makes for good media, but what’s happening at the end of the day is local conversations.”
Fitzgerald said in a statement that he doesn’t trust the governor, saying his actions speak louder than words. He pointed out that Evers initially said he wouldn’t try to postpone the state’s April elections and then attempted to do just that before the conservative leaning state Supreme Court blocked him. Evers for weeks also said he didn’t think he would issue a mask mandate and did anyway.
“I’m fearful that he will cave to pressures from liberal groups and backtrack once again,” Fitzgerald said. “The fight isn’t over yet, and legislators will remain vigilant. I would urge citizens of Wisconsin who support in-person instruction to keep the pressure on the governor.”
Evers told reporters Tuesday that he was disappointed that President Donald Trump has decided to reduce federal funding for National Guard troops assigned to coronavirus relief. Nearly every state has lobbied the president to extend federal funding to the end of the year. Trump on Monday reauthorized funding through Dec. 31 but will require states to pick up a quarter of the costs.
Guard members have played a key role in staffing public testing sites around Wisconsin. They also filled in as poll workers during the April election and hundreds of staffers refused to work out of fear of contracting the virus. Evers said the state will have to come up with about $4 million to fill the gap in federal funding, adding the state wouldn’t be “anywhere near where we are today” in the fight against the virus without the Guard’s help.
State election officials said Tuesday local clerks are about 900 poll workers short for the Aug. 11 primary and are working with the Guard on a plan to again use troops to help. Evers has not officially activated the Guard for such a mission.
The state Department of Health and Human Services reported 728 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 56,056 cases. The department reported 12 more people have died of the disease, bringing the death toll to 961. The percentage of positive tests dipped to 4%, however, the lowest percentage in the last two weeks.