EAU CLAIRE — In a move toward normal operations, the Eau Claire school district announced Monday it plans to bring students in all grade levels back to full-time, face-to-face classes this fall.

Masks will be optional for students and staff inside school buildings.

The district may change its mask policy if a new local, state or federal mandate requires masks inside school buildings, “or if there are significant increases in positivity rates in the community or at specific schools or grade levels,” it said in the announcement.

Some of the district’s fall plans square with new school recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This month the CDC said vaccinated students and teachers don’t have to wear masks inside school buildings, though it said unvaccinated people age two and older should still wear masks.

The CDC wrote July 9: “Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.”

The agency also recommended schools maintain at least three feet of physical distance between students within classrooms.

The Eau Claire school district did not say in the announcement if students will be physically distanced inside classroom buildings.

At a Monday meeting of the Eau Claire school board, parents expressed both approval and criticism of the district’s mask policy for the fall.

William Kampf of Eau Claire urged the board to continue to require students to wear masks in the fall, especially in elementary schools. The CDC is recommending unvaccinated teachers and students still wear masks in school buildings, and children under 12 can’t yet get vaccinated, he noted.

“There is no reason to gather students together in a situation where they can’t be socially distanced and not require them to wear masks,” Kampf said during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Parent Rebecca Carter of Eau Claire, who also spoke at the meeting, agreed: “I was proud of how the district managed the COVID risks this past school year, but as I look ahead to the fall, I’m concerned that if masks are no longer required, sending my daughter to in-person classes will be much more of a risk.”

Parent Robyn Stolt of Eau Claire expressed relief that masks will be optional for students in the fall.

“I know there are going to be variants, and we need to adjust as we can … and work together as parents, as a school board and as teachers to try to do what’s best for our children. Mandating something for everybody doesn’t necessarily work for all,” Stolt said Monday.

The school district on Monday outlined its plans for different grade levels:

  • Pre-kindergarten students will attend school four days per week during regular school hours, with 3 ½-hour sessions in the morning or afternoon, Monday through Thursday.
  • Elementary (kindergarten through 5th grade) and secondary (6th through 12th grade) students will attend classes five days per week during regular school hours.
  • If they wish, students in kindergarten through 12th grade can choose to attend the Eau Claire Virtual School, a fully-virtual charter school program that launched in 2019 and partners with the school district. The deadline to sign up for ECVS is July 27. Enrollment information can be found at the school’s website, www.ecasd.us/ecvs.

After-school activities and athletics will return to their regular schedules and seasons, the district said, noting that the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association is planned to share specific guidance for schools in upcoming days.

Students will not be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend in-person classes, the district said.

In Eau Claire County, 34% of children between 12 and 15 are fully vaccinated, along with 44% of 16 and 17-year-olds. There is not currently a COVID-19 vaccine approved in the U.S. for children younger than 12.

The district’s other planned COVID-19 precautions for the fall include:

  • In line with the CDC’s requirement of face masks on all public transportation, students and others must wear masks when they’re boarding a school bus or school district transportation, the district said.
  • If they are asymptomatic, vaccinated students and staff won’t need to quarantine if they’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19 at school or during activities or athletics.
  • The state and local health departments plan to assist the school district with contact tracing, and the school district will follow their guidance when deciding quarantine lengths.
  • The school district will keep offering hand sanitizer in buildings. Custodians will clean all buildings after each school day and conduct “specialized cleanings” if there are illness outbreaks in a school, the district said.

As the fall approaches, the district said it plans to share more information about teacher assignments and class schedules, classroom setups and physical distancing, field trips, visitor guidelines, lunches and special education services.

“We are so glad to welcome students back to our schools five days per week for this new school year,” said Eau Claire schools superintendent Michael Johnson in a statement. “As we continue our planning for the upcoming school year, we are closely monitoring the local trends and taking the steps necessary to protect and promote the academic, physical, social and emotional well-being of our students, staff and families. We are grateful for the support of our entire community as we make this happen.”

School board holds first in-person meeting since 2020

The Eau Claire school board opened its Monday meeting to in-person attendees for the first time in 15 months. Since April 2020, it had held meetings online, and members of the public attended remotely via phone or internet-connected device.

About 25 members of the public attended the meeting in person.

Also at the meeting:

  • The school board voted to approve several changes to the district’s employee handbook. One new policy — involving how staffers will work during emergency school closures in the 2021-22 school year — won’t be finalized until later this summer, after a committee meets to discuss the future of the district’s snow day policy, said executive director of human resources Kay Marks. Another change says some employees will be able to work remotely occasionally with written approval, though employees will be expected to work “primarily in person,” according to the policy. Other changes include shifts in wages for some seasonal employees, expectations for teachers on emergency school closure days, updating how employees can access their personnel file and a slight change to employee retirement benefits.
  • The board approved minor changes to the district’s contract with McKinley Charter School. The school will now give preference to current students’ siblings in the yearly enrollment process.
  • The board approved a renewal of the district’s insurance policies for the 2021-22 school year.

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.