January 8, 2021

Advocacy Update: Assembly Republicans Pass COVID Bill

Advocacy Update: Assembly Republicans Pass COVID Bill Featured Image
Assembly Speaker Vos and his Assembly majority have passed their Covid bill, Assembly Bill 1. This bill is both inadequate and in many respects harmful to the basic needs Wisconsinites expect and deserve. The bill includes several provisions that impact public schools.
Assembly GOP leadership introduced the bill as legislators were sworn in and passed the bill three days later. It is unclear whether the Senate Republican leadership supports the bill. AB-1 was introduced after Governor Tony Evers sent a letter to leaders urging action on items he and legislators could agree (see his compromise bill). After introduction of the Assembly bill, Evers  expressed his disappointment that Republican legislators continue to refuse to partner for relief. The Assembly bill contains some items that the governor does not support that could result in a veto. In addition, Democratic lawmakers are advancing their own version of a relief bill.
WEAC has registered in opposition to Assembly Bill 1 because it does not do what is necessary to adequately address the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. Most importantly, it does not create statewide gating criteria guidance for opening schools.

Assembly Bill 1 Summary

Some of the provisions in Assembly Bill 1 that would impact public schools include:
  • Virtual Instruction. Limits school boards from providing virtual instruction in lieu of in-person instruction between January 11-June 30, 2022, unless there is a two-thirds vote of the board. After 14 days, another vote would be needed. Each extension could only last 14 days.
  • Rehiring of Retirees in Critical Positions. Specifies a WRS participant hired by a participating employer during the pandemic may be rehired outside of current rules. The head of state agencies and local health departments, based on guidance provided by the DHS, would determine which positions are considered critical.
  • Prohibit Employers from Requiring Vaccinations. Prohibits employers from requiring their employees to receive a vaccine or show proof of having received such as vaccine as a condition of an offer of employment or continued employment with the employer. Also prohibits the Department of Health Services and local health officials from requiring individuals to receive the vaccine.
  • Immunity from Civil Liability. Creates a liability exemption for entities including schools for the death of or injury to an individual or damages caused by an act or omission resulting in or relating to exposure (directly or indirectly) to COVID19. The provision would be in addition to, not in lieu of, other immunity granted by law, and would not limit immunity granted under any other provisions of law. Immunity would not apply if the act or omission involves reckless or wanton conduct or intentional misconduct. The provision would apply to claims beginning on March 1, 2020, but not apply retroactively.
  • Athletic and Extracurricular Eligibility. Paves the way for students who open enroll to retain athletic eligibility in 2021-22 and provides that a pupil who attends a virtual charter school would be allowed to participate in interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities in the pupil’s school district of residence on the same basis and to the same extent as pupils enrolled in the district.
Additionally, the following is included in Assembly Bill 1:
  • Changes to open enrollment so districts cannot deny applications from parents who file in “best interest of students,” along with loosening requirements around filing applications.
  • Requires districts to file statewide reports on virtual instruction, as was required for the 2019-20 school year.
  • Allows the Joint Finance Committee to pull $100 million from other appropriations to pay for costs related to the pandemic.
  • Provides guidelines for state employees to return to work.
  • Establishes legislative oversight of vaccine distribution plan.
  • Allows for an essential family member/caregiver to visit a loved one in nursing homes in specific circumstances.
  • Allows health service providers from other states to practice in Wisconsin.
  • Covers vaccinations under the SeniorCare program.
  • Requires a plan to address a backlog of unemployment claims and extend call center hours until the number of weekly claims in process is comparable to the first two months of 2020.

Several items in the original Assembly COVID plan introduced in late November are not part of Assembly Bill 1, thanks to the advocacy of WEAC members who contacted their legislators. Those items include:

  • Fining school districts that hold classes virtually for at least 50 percent of the school year since September.
  • Requiring school boards to ensure that all hours of direct pupil instruction are provided by a teacher who is physically located in a school building, beginning on January 31.
  • Authorizing additional payments to special needs voucher schools if an eligible pupil was not included in the 3rd Friday count because there was not an IEP in place but does have a plan in place by January 8.
  • Reauthorizing state employee transfers.
  • Requiring UW System to provide credit to students who assist in the COVID-19 response.
  • Doubling the number of local public health staff working on the COVID-19 response.
  • Offering weekly rapid antigen tests for home use.
  • Continuing the prohibition of co-payments for any COVID-19 tests.
  • Creating business grants for the hospitality industry.
  • Requiring the Department of Workforce Development to eliminate the backlog of unemployment insurance claims.
In November, Governor Tony Evers introduced his COVID relief plan. Education-related provisions in the governor’s plan included allowing school districts to rehire retired annuitants and give the ability to reinstate licensure through the end of 2021, along with waivers for state assessments and report cards for the 2020-21 school year. While the Republican bill takes up rehiring of individuals in the WRS for critical positions, it does not specifically address teachers or extension of licensure. Assembly Bill 1 also does not include language to waive requirements for state assessments for this school year, along with school report cards required under state law. The governor’s waiver proposal would have provided flexibility if federal requirements are waived.

Election Deadlines

Candidates for State Superintendent faced a deadline today to turn in signatures for the spring election. Candidates running in the special elections for Senate District 13 and Assembly District 89,  left vacant by the resignations of republicans Senator Scott Fitzgerald and Representative John Nygren, have until Friday to turn in their signatures.

State Treasurer Update

State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, who serves as the Chair of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL), has provided an update on the financial performance of four trusts funds with assets that exceed $1.2 billion that support public schools and universities.

  • Record Distribution – $38.2 Million: This year a record-setting distribution of $38.2 million was made to finance technology and books for public schools.
  • Digital Divide and COVID – $5.25 Million: In April, a special distribution of $5.25 million to purchase online resources such as e-learning books and hotspots.
  • Scholarships & Grants – $900,000: The BCPL’s Normal School Fund has announced $900,000 in grants and scholarships for the UW System, nearly double from 2019. This distribution provides funding for a variety of different programs and initiatives throughout the UW system.