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Officials: Consider cloth masks, but social distancing still a must

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now recommended people wear cloth face masks in grocery stores, pharmacies and places where they can’t practice social distancing, but local health officials say masks cannot replace the social distancing they’re already practicing.

“Homemade face cloths might make people feel more secure, but the purpose of a homemade face cloth, if people choose to use it, is to protect others from your coughs and sneezes — not to protect you from getting the disease,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

Social distancing and avoiding essential travel is by far the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the area, Giese said.

Cloth face masks aren’t surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those “must continue to be reserved for health care workers,” according to the CDC.

People should also consider where they’re wearing a cloth mask, Giese said. Wearing a mask outdoors for an isolated walk, she said, might impact someone’s ability to breathe easily and cause people to touch their face even more than usual.

“That’s one of the risk factors for getting a disease like COVID-19,” Giese said.

Eau Claire County has picked up five identified cases since Friday, and sat at 21 positive cases as of Monday. After testing nearly 1,000 people in total, 86 tests are still pending, Giese said.

The county’s youngest COVID-19 patients are teenagers and its oldest are in their 60s.

Eau Claire County hasn’t yet seen concentrated outbreaks in specific areas.

Cases are “really dispersed across the county,” and Eau Claire County hasn’t yet seen groups of cases in nursing homes or care facilities, like other counties are seeing, Giese said: “Most of our cases are travel-related, and then some people that are connected to other cases … (they) are widely distributed and occasionally in family units.”

Nevertheless, the actual number of COVID-19 cases in the state is probably much higher.

“We know that many people are not symptomatic, many are not getting tested because of minor symptoms, and the estimate the state has (given) is five to 10 times the number of positive (tests),” Giese said.

Statewide, COVID-19 related deaths ticked up sharply over the weekend, and hit 77 on Monday, according to the state Department of Health Services. As of Monday, Wisconsin authorities had 2,440 identified cases and 668 hospitalizations.

“We are prioritizing those people that are tested, so it is not a surprise that a little more than a quarter of tested cases are ones that are hospitalized,” Giese said.

Some modeling shows Wisconsin should hit its peak in cases around May 1, but that’s still just a best guess, Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer for communicable diseases, said Monday, according to The Associated Press. Westergaard noted that If safer-at-home orders are loosened and more people are allowed to come into contact with one another, conditions will worsen, the AP reported.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, causes mild symptoms in about 80% of people infected, but severe complications can develop, including pneumonia.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline can be reached at 715-831-7425. The hotline’s hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

EC school board eyes flexible boundaries at Manz, Meadowview

An Eau Claire schools committee is recommending the district begin using flexible boundaries, impacting Meadowview, Manz and Robbins elementary schools, as a short-term stopgap for crowded south side schools.

The proposal would allow families in three areas to choose between Manz and Robbins, or Meadowview and Manz elementary schools.

The committee’s goal is to shift some new enrollment to Robbins Elementary, which has slightly more room available than Meadowview or Manz, said Josh Clements, chair of the Demographic Trends and Facility Planning Committee.

“It doesn’t make a dramatic shift in boundaries, and would seek to keep families together. Those students currently attending those schools, or siblings, would continue,” Clements said.

Manz is sitting at 87% capacity this school year, and Meadowview is at 95%, according to district figures. Robbins, at 79%, has slightly more space.

Drawing flexible boundaries in those areas won’t mean extra transportation costs, since most of the students in that area are bused to school anyway, Clements said.

He emphasized that the flexible boundaries would be a short-term plan.

The committee is assuming that “the short-term relief plan would likely only be effective for two to three years, given that even before we do some rebalancing, many schools will still be uncomfortable,” Clements said.

If it’s approved by the school board, the flexible boundaries would likely take effect in fall 2020 and extend until a longer-term measure was taken, including a possible referendum, said Kim Koller, executive director of administration.

Children who live within the flexible boundaries and chose to attend the alternate school would be allowed to attend that school until they transitioned to middle school, or until their families changed residences, Koller noted.

Clements said the committee ultimately ruled out drawing new boundaries throughout the whole school district, and bringing in temporary structures as additional classrooms.

The school board could vote on the proposal as early as April 20.

The district has also announced public virtual forums for its three finalists for superintendent. Forums will be held from 7 to 8 p.m. on each interview date. Students, families and community members are invited to attend for a presentation and question-and-answer session with each finalist, the district said in a news release.

The dates of the forums are:

Tuesday, April 14:

  • Michael Johnson, assistant superintendent in the South Washington County school district, a St. Paul suburb.

Wednesday, April 15:

  • Rosalie Daca, chief academic officer of the Racine school district.

Friday, April 17:

  • Rev Hillstrom, director of educational equity for the Osseo (Minn.) school district.

Applicants for the new Eau Claire superintendent attracted applications from 11 different states and one other country, the district said Monday.

The board plans to announce its final candidate in late April. The new superintendent is slated to begin on or before July 1.

Also at Monday’s virtual school board meeting

  • Dave Oldenberg, interim principal of Memorial High School, will become the school’s permanent principal, superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said Monday. Oldenberg served as principal at Memorial from 2009 to 2016, then became the district’s director of academic services. He was tapped to lead Memorial as interim principal in August 2019.
  • Putnam Heights Elementary principal Heidi Neumann-Kneeland will become the district’s academic services coordinator, Hardebeck said. Her transfer will be effective July 1.
  • The board approved slight changes to its facility and grounds fee schedule, including adding a fee for groups to use school parking lots. The fee will apply to groups who want to rent only parking lots — it won’t apply to groups who want to rent school buildings. Interested parties must consult the district for pricing. Events that have requested to use district parking lots are the Chippewa Valley Air Show and Country Jam, said Abby Johnson, executive director of business services. The district is adding a rental fee for parking lots because it limits who can use the district facilities during that period of time, Johnson said.
  • Other changes to district building rentals include new online tools for community events. Applications to use facilities and rental contracts will now be sent via email, and changes and cancellations can now be made online, Koller said.
  • The board voted to approve an 0.5% wage increase for hourly and non-affiliated employees for the 2020-21 school year. The Consumer Price Index increase for wages beginning in July 2020 is 1.81%; the board is also committing to “level movement” for the 2020-21 year in addition to the wage increase, according to meeting documents.