Yesterday, March 17, 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, under the direction of Governor Evers, issued Emergency Order #5 (“the Order”). The Order is entitled “Prohibiting Mass Gatherings of 10 People or More”. The Order then does what its title suggests and places a “moratorium” on gatherings that are intended or likely to bring together more than 10 people in a “single room or single confined space”.
The Order includes a list of 12 exceptions to the mass gathering prohibition, specifically including the following:
Educational institutions for noninstructional purposes, such as medication pick-up, childcare services, providing meals, and when operating as polling places.
- Child care programs, including those that operate within a facility that is otherwise prohibited.
- Government facilities, unless prohibited elsewhere in this order.
School Administrators and board members are inquiring about school boards’ ability to hold meetings, including regular board meetings, special sessions to deal with issues related to school closure, and committee meetings. There are many important decisions about continuity of educational opportunities, staff compensation and assignments, and other business of the school district that require the school board to convene. Also, there has been no change nor exception made to the state law requirement that each school board hold a meeting at least monthly. Common or Union: Wis. Stat. §120.11(1); Unified: Wis. Stat. §120.43(2).
As such, at least for the interim, you may continue to hold board meetings and committee meetings, even if such a meeting requires (or is likely to involve) more than 10 people to gather. These meetings can be held consistent with the Order and at a school district location as the exceptions permit certain activities at specific physical locations, not just activities. However, with regard to such meetings, it is advisable to take steps to preserve social distancing of six feet or more between people and to follow other public health recommendations from the DHS and CDC. Furthermore, it is advisable to encourage and facilitate the use of technology for those individuals who wish to observe and/or participate in the meetings. This may include teleconferencing access, web-meeting technology, video conferencing, or the like.
To date, we have received no guidance from DPI, the DOJ, or any other authoritative entity that would release school boards/districts from the obligations of the Open Meetings Law. This means that any school board or committee meeting must be held pursuant to proper notice, must be confined to those items for which proper notice was provided, must be convened only upon the presence of a quorum, and must be accessible to the public for attendance in some fashion. Likewise, closed session authority remains unchanged by the current environment.
It is important to note that this guidance may change, as so much has, with little or no notice. We will do our best to inform our clients of important changes to this and other related areas as they arise.
For questions regarding this article, please contact the author,
or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, S.C., attorney.