Republican governor candidate Rebecca Kleefisch would ban mask mandates in schools

Rebecca Kleefisch is a Republican candidate for governor.
Rebecca Kleefisch is a Republican candidate for governor.

MADISON – School officials could no longer require students or staff to wear face masks in classrooms to curb the spread of coronavirus infections under legislation Republican candidate for governor Rebecca Kleefisch is promising to sign if elected.

The position puts Kleefisch again in contrast on COVID-19 issues with Democratic incumbent Gov. Tony Evers, who said he would veto legislation that removes local officials' ability to implement mitigation efforts.

Some states with statewide mask mandates are starting to shed them as a surge of cases fueled by the omicron variant of COVID-19 dissipates and vaccines become available for younger children.

Wisconsin has not had a statewide mask mandate for nearly a year. It was implemented by Evers for eight months between August 2020 and March 2021 before the Wisconsin Supreme Court's conservative majority stuck it down.

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Evers ordered the mask mandate ahead of a new school year and after the high court struck down Evers' stay-at-home order that closed school buildings for the last two months of the 2019-2020 school year.

Rebecca Kleefisch would sign bill that bans mask mandates in schools, a contrast to Gov. Evers

Kleefisch would go farther than leaving in place the status quo, which allows local health officials to require face masks in school buildings in their area.

A spokesman for Kleefisch said she would sign a bill that bans mask mandates in schools, a move that would add Wisconsin to a group of at least 10 states with such bans in place or being challenged.

"There is a hideous inequality throughout the state when it comes to parents being able to make choices. She’s tired of feeling like the 'lucky mom' that her kid is not forced to wear a mask," Kleefisch campaign spokesman Alec Zimmerman said in an email.

"Parents should be the ones making the decision on whether or not their kids have to wear masks to school."

Britt Cudaback, spokeswoman for Evers, said Evers believes the decision of whether to implement COVID-19 mitigation policies should be left to local school district officials, parents, school staff and area public health officials based on the needs of the school community.

"Gov. Evers’ focus has been and will continue to be getting our schools the resources and support they need to keep our kids in the classroom in a safe and healthy environment," Cudaback said, noting the Evers administration distributed more than 530,000 pieces of protective equipment to schools in the first few weeks of 2022.

"The governor trusts parents and schools to work together to do what’s best for our kids without the unnecessary political interference of the Legislature, and he would veto legislation that bars mitigation decisions they’ve been making together at the local level to help keep our kids and our classrooms safe."

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Kevin Nicholson, a U.S. Marine veteran who is running against Kleefisch in the Republican primary for governor, supports "eliminating mask mandates." A spokeswoman did not initially answer whether Nicholson would sign legislation to ban mandates in schools specifically but confirmed he would after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a story online.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who have control over which legislation advances in their houses, did not answer whether they would support the legislation Kleefisch is calling for, however.

When asked if Kleefisch would pursue executive action to accomplish the same goal, Zimmerman said Kleefisch will "do whatever it takes to put parents in control."

Other states have issued school bans on mask mandates

Four states have implemented statewide bans on mask mandates in schools, according to a tally by Education Week. Similar measures are being challenged in another six states, including Virginia where lawmakers are codifying the new Republican governor's executive order that has been the subject of legal challenges.

Officials with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards declined to comment on the idea.

On Tuesday, Milwaukee County chief health policy adviser Ben Weston said it's time to discuss the idea of dropping masking requirements in schools.

Weston told reporters that school officials need to consider the average of daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalization numbers, and the rate of positive COVID-19 tests when deciding whether to drop mask requirements.

Those metrics in Milwaukee County have been steadily declining for a month, coinciding with statewide and national trends following the omicron variant surge.

City of Milwaukee under a mask mandate until March 1

The city of Milwaukee has been under a mask mandate since last month. The measure adopted by the common council and signed by the mayor, is set to expire March 1. Acting Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson has said he would consider dropping the city's mask mandate if the infection rate in the area declined.

Weston did not immediately respond to the idea of policymakers banning potential future mask requirements.

A number of lawsuits have been filed over such measures in other states.

Adam Jarchow, a Republican candidate for attorney general, said in a statement he would "proudly, and vigorously, defend a law banning school mask mandates."

Jarchow said separately in a tweet that mask requirements in classrooms are "woke, liberal political theater."

Fond du Lac District Attorney Eric Toney, who is running in the GOP primary against Jarchow, said he also would defend such a law.

“I refused to enforce Governor Evers’ unlawful 2020 mask mandate, and as Attorney General I will enforce and defend the rule of law including any bills signed preventing our kids from being forced to wear masks," Toney said in a statement.

A campaign aide to Attorney General Josh Kaul, the Democratic incumbent, did not immediately respond to questions about how they would handle legal challenges over such a ban.

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Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Rebecca Kleefisch would sign ban on mask mandates in schools