Student Walkout

Altoona High School senior Jack Ives, foreground, and about 20 classmates on Tuesday protested the Altoona school board’s decision to ramp up face-to-face classes for sixth through 12th grades. Starting Tuesday, the students began attending four days per week of in-person classes, instead of two. Students said they were concerned about less physical distancing and what they called a lack of student input in the board’s decision. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

ALTOONA — Like other local school districts, the Altoona school district is increasing face-to-face classes for sixth through 12th grade students to four days per week, instead of two, spurring a protest Tuesday from a group of Altoona High School students.

About 20 AHS students sat outside the high school Tuesday afternoon in protest. Some said they objected to the Altoona school board’s March vote to increase face-to-face attendance for older students.

Students cited worries about a lack of social distancing within school buildings.

“It’s not really worth it, with two months left in the semester,” said AHS senior Iris Adams. “I know a lot of people who were really nervous to come back.”

The Altoona school board voted March 15 to bring older students back to classrooms four days per week, instead of two.

Younger Altoona students — 4-year-old kindergarten through fifth grade — have already been attending face-to-face classes four days per week since the school year began.

The change for older students will impact all schools in the district, since furniture that was being stored in the elementary and intermediate schools would need to be returned to the middle and high schools, said Altoona schools Superintendent Heidi Eliopoulos in a letter to families earlier this spring.

Due to the change, Altoona teachers, students and staff won’t be able to keep 6 feet of physical distance inside school buildings at all times.

Staff and students are still required to wear masks under the Eau Claire County mask ordinance. The schools are individually plating meals and continuing other health precautions, Eliopoulos said Tuesday.

Looking for input

This spring the school district surveyed families of sixth through 12th grade students, trying to gauge their opinion on more days in the classroom.

“We felt it was in good faith that we checked with students,” Eliopoulos said of the survey.

But in the end, the survey had to be thrown out.

Almost 1,200 Altoona families responded to the survey, Altoona school officials said last month. A small majority, about 53%, said they didn’t support expanding in-person classes. About 47% said they did support expanding in-person classes.

After the results came in, the school district began hearing that people had tampered with the survey.

Some people admitted they had taken the survey more than once, Eliopoulos said.

“That was disheartening, because it invalidated the results,” she said. “So we didn’t have that feedback.”

At the March 15 school board meeting, the board heard “quite a bit of feedback from parents on both sides of the issue,” Eliopoulos said. “But represented more was a belief that people wanted their kids back to school four days a week.”

The school board considered county COVID-19 data and staffing data when making its decision, Eliopoulos said: “We’re able to see that while we’re not completely out of the woods yet and we still do have some absences and health and safety practices in place, the situation is getting better for us in terms of the health of our community.”

Tuesday was sixth through 12th grade students’ first day under the new attendance plan.

Adams and AHS senior Connor Camlek said Tuesday afternoon that they distrusted the school board’s decision-making process and the results of the survey.

Camlek called for more students involved in decision making.

AHS senior Morgan Dekan, who helped organize the student protest, said that the school district did not consult students about the decision.

Some students are worried about a lack of social distancing inside classrooms, fearing COVID-19 cases could lead to a large number of students having to quarantine, Adams said.

“We graduate on (May) 28th, and we’re worried about social distancing, not being able to go to graduation,” Adams said.

Altoona school board President Rick Risler did not respond to the Leader-Telegram’s request for comment Tuesday.

Students and administrators did not agree if the event Tuesday was a student walkout. Dekan said some students left class or in the middle of their lunch periods to sit outside the high school in protest; she added that other students wished to attend but feared being penalized for leaving classes or lunch periods. Eliopoulos said she understood students gathered outdoors to eat lunch, though a walkout had been discussed. Nearly all 20 students returned indoors before their next class period.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.