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Schools to remain closed indefinitely, districts eye longer-term plans

Wisconsin’s K-12 schools remain closed indefinitely, and could stay shuttered until or past April 24 — when Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order extends to — and Chippewa Valley school districts plan to keep distributing meals during that time.

Schools will also work with students to help them graduate and advance grades at the end of the spring semester, despite the closures, local superintendents told the Leader-Telegram Wednesday.

Two weeks ago, Evers ordered schools to close by 5 p.m. March 18. Last week he said the closures would last indefinitely, as long as the state was under a public health emergency declaration, or until another order re-opened schools.

Local superintendents said they’d follow Evers’ orders on reinstating in-person classes: “We will definitely follow whatever the governor’s directive is, and that could change from time to time,” said Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck.

Meal distribution to continue

The Eau Claire district will continue distributing meals on school days to children 18 and under, and plans to expand that service to more locations in the Eau Claire area beginning mid-next week. More details on the expansion will be available next week, Hardebeck said. The district will partner with busing company Student Transit to expand that service.

The district began offering free grab-and-go lunch and breakfast meals from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays at DeLong, Northstar and South middle schools for volunteers to distribute student meals. Meals are not available this week, due to the district’s scheduled spring break but will resume Monday, Hardebeck said.

Students no longer need to be present to pick up the meals, according to the district.

In Altoona, Menomonie and Chippewa Falls, meal distribution has also begun and will continue while schools are closed, except for those districts’ scheduled spring break weeks.

The Altoona district will resume handing out meals for kids 18 and under on Monday, Altoona schools Superintendent Ron Walsh said.

“Our food service schedule is planning to continue until either we’re stopped by an order that would force it to stop, or until we resume in person school attendance,” said Chippewa Falls schools Superintendent Heidi Taylor-Eliopoulos.

Academic plans

The Eau Claire district plans to continue the online instruction it’s already begun for some grades starting Monday, Hardebeck said.

“We’re going forward with instructions from the DPI, (and) we expect those who are on track to graduate to be able to fulfill their graduation requirements on time,” she said. “We’re working very hard with those students, and working with all our students to keep them up to date with their studies.”

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction said last week it would waive the state’s mandated hour requirement for districts who requested it — and it would “work to ensure an expedited process.”

Districts will likely take that step, Hardebeck said.

Walsh said the Altoona district will “probably have enough hours of instruction through the year to allow people to graduate and advance grades,” but is trying to provide enrichment for students while schools are closed, instead of transforming all its curriculum into online methods. Reaching young students is harder when classes aren’t face-to-face, he said, but teachers put together take-home packets for their students.

Walsh said it’s unknown if the Altoona district will consider extending the school year.

“It’s just been really tough to plan that far ahead,” Walsh said. “We’re kind of working day to day right now, getting through this.”

The Chippewa Falls school district is transitioning its short-term virtual learning plan to a longer-term plan on April 8, Taylor-Eliopoulos said.

“When it evolved into indefinite (closures), we realized we needed something a little more deliberate,” she said, noting that families will get more details on the plan next week.

“If at any point on April 24 or after, if the order from the state level is lifted, we’ll work with local public health officials to determine if Chippewa County schools are in a place to resume in-person learning,” Elipoulos said.

The Chippewa Falls district’s plan doesn’t currently include extending its school year. It is “committed to figuring out what each student needs to be on track to take their next step to the next gate level or to graduate,” Taylor-Eliopoulos added.

Menomonie teachers are “preparing for the possibility of providing virtual instruction” and training with virtual tools this week, wrote Menomonie schools superintendent Joe Zydowsky in a blog post March 18. They plan to offer recommendations to families for daily schedules and enrichment activities.

Cleaning begins

Districts are allowed to use school buildings for distance or virtual learning, according to Evers’ order, but the Eau Claire school district closed all its buildings on Friday “until further notice” — its spring break began Monday — and said staff members who could do so would work remotely, starting March 30.

Menomonie and Altoona districts also said they would close their buildings to the public, and along with the Chippewa Falls district will be undergoing deep cleaning, the districts said in announcements.

Altoona teachers are working on electronic instruction from their homes, Walsh said.

Superintendents asked parents with questions about the next few weeks to contact teachers, principals or district administrators by phone or email.

“If this goes on longer, we’ll come up with some longer-term approaches to dealing with this,” Walsh said. “We’re not going to leave people hanging.”

Read Evers’ shelter-in-place order at tinyurl.com/wz9yjsj or at evers.wi.gov.

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Traffic slows as Chippewa Valley residents adjust to stay-at-home restrictions

Orange barricades and police tape with the words “Danger — Do not enter” barred entrance to the main playground at Carson Park.

Streets and sidewalks in Eau Claire’s rejuvenated downtown were nearly empty.

Oakwood Mall’s parking lot was deserted.

Welcome to Day One of life under the stay-at-home imposed by Gov. Tony Evers to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The order, which took effect at 8 a.m. Wednesday and runs through April 24, severely limited traffic and largely ground commerce to a halt in the Chippewa Valley.

That was exactly the intent, as state government and health officials seek to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic so hospitals don’t get overrun with patients. As of Wednesday afternoon, Wisconsin had 585 people test positive for the virus, including six deaths, according to the state Department of Health Services.

“It appears that we’re getting substantial compliance at this point,” Sheriff Ron Cramer said late Wednesday morning.

Essential questions

Still, officials from Chippewa Valley law enforcement agencies and the Eau Claire City-County Health Department indicated they were getting flooded with questions from residents and businesses regarding what Evers called the “safer at home” order.

The order calls for closing nonessential businesses, banning gatherings of any size for people not in the same household and imposing monthlong travel restrictions. It mandates that Wisconsin residents stay at home, with exceptions for essential work, activities and travel.

“We’re getting bombarded with questions about what are essential and nonessential businesses,” Chippewa County Sheriff James Kowalczyk said.

The Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office also fielded a number of complaints from residents questioning whether some operating businesses should be considered essential, Kowalczyk said.

Both Cramer and Kowalczyk said people should not call 911 with such inquiries.

Seeing the difference

At local retail centers, the distinction was apparent, with parking lots empty outside of clothing stores but still teeming with cars at supermarkets and Menards.

Among the businesses allowed to remain open under the order are health care facilities; grocery stores; bars and restaurants offering delivery and carryout food only; child care facilities; post offices; airports; pharmacies; gas stations; banks and other financial institutions; laundries and dry cleaners; hardware stores; churches and places of worship; funeral homes; and media outlets.

Regarding enforcement, Health Department director Lieske Giese said officials hope to begin with education to help people understand the order but reserve the right to resort to the legal system if necessary. People who violate the order could face up to 30 days in jail or a fine of up to $250 or both.

“We expect that as of 8 this morning the order is being followed,” Giese said Wednesday afternoon at the daily media briefing.

Opening infraction

The Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office did respond to a violation reminiscent of Prohibition on Tuesday night after an anonymous report around 6:30 p.m. of a bar being open for an “invitation only” gathering in which alcohol was being served. Such activities have been banned temporarily since March 17.

According to the incident report, deputies responded to Double Days Sports Bar and Grill, 3020 London Road, where they found the owner, Kevin Patterson, 49, of Eau Claire, behind the bar serving patrons and allowing them to smoke. The six customers were removed and the bar was shut down, with the report forwarded to the Health Department and town of Washington for possible enforcement and liquor license consideration.

Patterson admitted to knowing he was supposed to be shut down, as was clear by the “deliberate act of concealing the windows with black construction plastic to act as tint and keeping his doors locked,” the report said.

Generally, however, law enforcement officials reported that people seemed to be trying to comply with the stay-at-home order and said they don’t expect to go out of their way to enforce it.

“Our goal is education and compliance, not arrests,” the Eau Claire Police Department said in a statement.

No checkpoints

Eau Claire police, along with Cramer and Kowalczyk, agreed their agencies would not be making traffic stops or requiring people to carry paperwork vouching for the essential nature of their travel.

“We’re not going to set up checkpoints to make sure people are complying,” Cramer said.

People just need to use common sense, Kowalczyk said, adding that officials want to prevent the kind of COVID-19 spread New York is experiencing from happening in the Chippewa Valley.

“I hope it doesn’t come to the point where we are stopping people just to see where they’re going,” he said.

Capt. Adam Olson of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said the department was taking the same approach.

“Our goal is to allow citizens to travel to work, to get food, medications and other essentials, but encourage voluntary compliance with social distancing and limiting travels,” Olson said in a news release. “We will be following up on complaints on noncompliance with the order, but will not be kicking in doors.”

Giese attempted to provide some clarification of the order for area residents, particularly as it relates to outdoor activity.

The order specifically allows people to go outside to walk, jog and ride bikes — activities that a few hardy souls were spotted doing on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon in Phoenix Park — but it closes playgrounds and bars team sports such as basketball, soccer and football.

What’s allowed

As a general guideline, Giese said, it’s OK for a parent to engage in activities such as playing catch or throwing batting practice with their child or someone from their household. But meeting friends for a game of baseball or kubb would be considered a violation of the order.

“(The order) does mean there are restrictions. It doesn’t mean people can’t do anything. The expectation is that you keep your circle very, very small,” she said, noting that state public health officials have asked Wisconsin residents to limit the number of people with whom they have contact to five.

When people do go outside or run essential errands such as buying groceries or prescriptions, Giese emphasized that the order requires them to stay 6 feet away from individuals they encounter as part of the social distancing effort that health officials say is the only effective way to slow the spread of the virus.

Eau Claire City Manager Dale Peters said he recognizes that residents will find the restrictions challenging, but reminded folks they are intended to protect everyone.

“We need you to stay home,” Peters said. “We know Eau Claire County residents want to do the right thing, so we expect that to happen.”

Trump implores action on rescue package

WASHINGTON — Senate leaders raced to unravel last-minute snags Wednesday and win passage of an unparalleled $2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure is the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history, and both parties’ leaders were desperate for quick passage as the virus took lives and jobs by the hour. The Senate stayed in session in anticipation of still passing the bill after days of delays.

Insistently optimistic, President Donald Trump said of the greatest public-health emergency in anyone’s lifetime, “I don’t think its going to end up being such a rough patch” and anticipated the economy soaring “like a rocket ship” when it’s over. Yet he implored Congress late in the day to move on critical aid without further delay.

The package is intended as relief for an economy spiraling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asked how long the aid would keep the economy afloat, said: “We’ve anticipated three months. Hopefully, we won’t need this for three months.”

Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.

“A fight has arrived on our shores,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we’re going to win it.”

“Big help, quick help, is on the way,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

But the drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators demanded changes, saying the legislation as written “incentivizes layoffs” and should be altered to ensure employees don’t earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working.

Complicating the standoff, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has flagged, said he would block the bill unless the conservatives dropped their objections.

“What I am saying is that two can play the same game,” Sanders told The Associated Press. “This is most certainly not the bill that I or any other progressive would have written,” he said, but added that he supports it in the main, given the severity of the crisis.

Other objections floated in from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said: “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the package “goes a long way.” He said it will require strong oversight to ensure the wealthy don’t benefit at the expense of workers and proposed forgiving at least $10,000 of student loan debt as part of the federal response.

McConnell and Schumer hoped passage of the legislation in the Republican-led Senate would come by the end of the day. Stocks posted their first back-to-back gains in weeks as the package took shape over the last two days, but much of Wednesday’s early rally faded as the hitch developed in the Senate. The market is down nearly 27% since setting a record high a month ago.

Senate passage would leave final congressional approval up to the Democratic-controlled House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swung behind the bipartisan agreement, saying it “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people.”

House members are scattered around the country, and the timetable for votes in that chamber is unclear.

House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington. But that may prove challenging, as the bill is sure to be opposed by some conservatives upset at its cost and scope. Ardent liberals were restless as well.

White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway Wednesday, shortly after midnight, capping days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure. The wording of some final pieces of the agreement need to be completed.

The sprawling, 500-page-plus measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid. It’s unlikely to be the last aid bill, lawmakers say.

The package would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

One of the last issues to close concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with the airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

McConnell, a key negotiator, said the package will “rush new resources onto the front lines of our nation’s health care fight. And it will inject trillions of dollars of cash into the economy as fast as possible to help Americans workers, families, small businesses and industries make it through this disruption and emerge on the other side ready to soar.”

Five days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among Congress’ top leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they maneuvered and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure is not an option, nor is starting over, which permitted both sides to include their priorities.

“That Washington drama does not matter any more,” McConnell said. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package today.”

The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at Schumer’s insistence. Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salaries of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers like Uber drivers covered for the first time.

Schumer said businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials — including Trump and his immediate family members — would be ineligible for the bill’s business assistance.

The New York Democrat immediately sent out a roster of negotiating wins for transit systems, hospital, and cash-hungry state governments that were cemented after Democrats blocked the measure in votes held Sunday and Monday to maneuver for such gains.

But Cuomo said the Senate package would send less than $4 billion to New York, far short of his estimate that the crisis will cost his state up to $15 billion over the next year. More than 280 New Yorkers have died from the virus, a death toll more than double that of any other state.

Still, Pelosi said the need for more money for New York is “no reason to stop the step we are taking.”

Pelosi was a force behind $400 million in grants to states to expand voting by mail and other steps that Democrats billed as making voting safer but Republican critics said was political opportunism. The package also contains $15.5 billion more for a surge in demand for food stamps.

Republicans won inclusion of an “employee retention” tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50 billion to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50% of workers’ paychecks. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax.

A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46 billion White House proposal to more than $300 billion, which dwarfs earlier disasters — including Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

Europe is enacting its own economic recovery packages, with huge amounts of credit guarantees, government spending and other support.

Germany alone, Europe’s biggest economy, has agreed to commit over 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) in fiscal stimulus and support — roughly 30 percent of that nation’s entire annual output. France, Spain and Italy have launched similar programs. The European Union has suspended limits it imposes on member countries’ borrowing and deficits, freeing them to spend more.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

In the United States, more than 55,000 people have been sickened and more than 800 have died.