Eau Claire teachers on Monday entreated the Eau Claire school board to consider additional safety precautions when deciding if school buildings will reopen this fall.
Some teachers proposed students wear masks nearly full time; others asked for completely virtual learning in the fall.
“Tonight’s discussion on this back-to-school proposal is likely the most important decision this school board will ever have to make,” said Mark Goings, president of the Eau Claire Association of Educators.
The school board had not taken a vote on the reopening plan by the Leader-Telegram’s press time Monday evening.
The plan, which the Eau Claire school district released last week, would bring most K-12 students back to in-person classes for two days per week.
Under the plan, teachers would also offer an all-virtual option for any K-12 student who wants to learn online.
In the proposed plan:
Goings asked the board to consider reverting to 100% online learning at least until November, pointing to a continuing spread of COVID-19 cases in Eau Claire County.
“Over last three weeks or so, identified cases and deaths have been on an upward trajectory at the state, national and local levels. Is now really the time to have 11,000 students and staff meeting in face-to-face situations?” Goings said. “We are in uncharted waters, and we need to get this right.”
In Eau Claire County, daily new cases have risen by 50% in the first two weeks of July compared to the last two weeks of June, and consistently about a third of people who test positive don’t have any connection to a known case, according to county data. Total cases of the virus have topped 400, and two coronavirus patients in the county have died.
Dan Wilson, a special education teacher at Memorial High School, said teachers won’t be able to ensure “seamless” instruction if they’re trying to teach in-person and online classes at the same time.
“If there’s one thing teachers have learned this past spring, it’s that in-person and online teaching is completely different,” Wilson said, adding that he expects “an even greater shortage of substitute teachers this fall.”
Brian Wiltgen, a South Middle School teacher, also spoke in favor of keeping students home to learn this school year.
“If you’re not willing to sit in a classroom with 15 other students for eight hours, then why should staff and students be put in that situation?” Wiltgen said, addressing the board Monday. The board has met virtually using videoconferencing since March.
About 87% of 255 teachers who responded to an Eau Claire Association of Educators survey were in favor of students wearing masks most of the time while in school buildings, said Amy Carlson Sather, 7th grade teacher at Northstar Middle School and ECAE representative.
Most of the respondents were “uncomfortable” with the district’s plan, Carlson Sather said. She advocated for masks and face shields being provided to teachers and students.
Beth Smith, a DeLong Middle School teacher, asked the board to require students to wear masks at all times, except for lunch, music classes and other special circumstances.
“Some say requiring masks is not enforceable. I disagree,” Smith said. “ … It is a minor inconvenience to bear for the benefit of all. We owe nothing less to our kids and staff.”
At the school board’s Monday meeting, four parents spoke in favor of bringing students back to school five days per week, and three said they supported an all-virtual school year, citing safety reasons.
The school board was set to discuss and possibly vote on the school reopening proposal Monday evening.
The state Department of Public Instruction last month released its advice for school reopenings, calling for masks, screening students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms, a maximum of 10 students per class and keeping school buildings open for as little as two days each week.
Eau Claire schools Superintendent Michael Johnson said last week the cost of the reopening plan will depend on how many families will choose the 100% virtual learning option, but he expected staffing to continue to be the district’s largest expense, followed by personal protective equipment.
The district hasn’t made a ruling yet on fall athletic programs; it’s waiting for guidance from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletics Association, according to the district’s website.
As for restarting extracurricular activities, the district said it will follow Health Department guidelines.
Pass-fail grading, which went into effect for most spring 2020 classes after schools shuttered in March, was temporary. This fall students can expect a return to regular grading: standards-based grading for pre-kindergarten through 5th grade students, and the letter-grade system for 6th through 12th grade.
In other school district news:
MADISON — Teachers unions for Wisconsin’s five largest school districts asked Gov. Tony Evers and the state’s top health and education officials Monday to keep schools closed at the start of the year due to the ongoing threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The letter was signed by union leaders for teachers in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. It was sent to Evers, Department of Public Instruction Secretary Carolyn Stanford Taylor and Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm.
“Our students need safe, equitable, well-resourced classrooms staffed with highly qualified educators, so they can learn,” union leaders said in the letter. “The classroom is where every single educator wants to be this fall, but with no containment of Wisconsin COVID-19 cases, a virtual reopening for public schools is necessary.”
Evers and Palm did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Evers, the former state schools superintendent, said last week that he did not plan to issue an order closing schools this fall, leaving it to each district to decide how to proceed. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in May struck down his safer-at-home order but did not rule against a separate order that kept schools closed through the spring 2020 semester.
Department of Public Instruction spokesman Chris Bucher said the agency has no authority to require online-only instruction. He referred to guidance the department issued in June, laying out options for schools to consider as they looked at reopening, including how to make classrooms safe for in-person teaching.
President Donald Trump has tried to pressure schools to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall, threatening to withhold federal money. But public health leaders nationally have warned that a one-size-fits-all reopening could drive infection and death rates even higher. The nation’s two largest teachers unions, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the School Superintendents Association, pushed back, saying the decisions should be science-based.
The Milwaukee and Madison districts announced last week that they plan to start the school year with online instruction only and will reassess later. Kenosha, the state’s third largest district, plans to return with a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning under a plan up for school board approval next week. Racine and Green Bay schools have not announced their plans.
Cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations and deaths have been surging in Wisconsin since mid-June, with more than 43,000 people confirmed to test positive and 846 deaths. The state has broken the record for new daily confirmed cases four times this month and the rate of positive cases out of all those tested broke 10% on Monday for a second day in a row after being as low as 2% in early June. About 65% of all confirmed cases statewide come from the five counties with the largest school districts.
The true number of cases is likely far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
The five union leaders said they represent more than 10,000 teachers and other education workers in the state who are responsible for educating more than 160,000 students. They called for a “science-informed, safe and equitable school reopening” for the fall.
Those who signed the letter were Justin Delfosse, president of the Green Bay Education Association; Tanya Kitts-Lewinski, president of the Kenosha Education Association; Andy Waity, president of Madison Teachers Incorporated; Amy Mizialko, president of Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and Angelina Cruz, president of Racine Educators United.
The second person to die of COVID-19 complications in Eau Claire County was a woman under age 50 with underlying conditions who was hospitalized for coronavirus.
During a media briefing Monday afternoon, Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, said she did not know how the person contracted the virus.
The person died Saturday, marking the second local fatality in less than a month. The first county death from coronavirus complications occurred June 22. According to county officials, that person was older than 65, in a high-risk group for virus complications and had underlying health conditions.
In Eau Claire County, 402 coronavirus cases have been confirmed, 31 more than last Friday. Of those positive cases, 322 people have recovered. The county has had 11,570 negative test results, 451 more than Friday. In the Eau Claire County Jail, seven people have tested positive for COVID-19, with six of them making full recoveries.
Chippewa County, where the Wisconsin National Guard administered free coronavirus testing Monday, has 167 confirmed cases, 25 active cases and one current hospitalization.
Giese again emphasized the importance of physical distancing and wearing masks covering the mouth and nose.
“There is clear evidence that doing those two things will make a difference in slowing the spread of this disease,” Giese said.
Regarding school reopening plans this fall, Giese said the Health Department is in constant contact with area school districts about their plans but that the final decision rests with school boards. Children and school employees are critical aspects of the community, and maintaining a safe, healthy, learning environment is “critically important,” Giese said.
Luke Fedie, Eau Claire County behavioral health administrator, acknowledged that the uncertainty presents stress and anxiety for everyone involved in education, including teachers, students, parents and families.
“Anxiety around this decision is real, and making the right choices for our children and youth is fraught with unique and unprecedented challenges,” Fedie said.
In general, Fedie said coronavirus can worsen existing mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and seasonal affective disorder.
“The isolation is worse now than it ever has been,” Fedie said. “It really amplifies a number of mental illnesses that people have now.”
Statewide, there have been 43,018 confirmed cases as of Monday afternoon, 9,037 of which are active. Wisconsin has had 846 total deaths from COVID-19 complications. The state’s daily positivity rate has remained above 10% in recent days.
The Health Department’s COVID-19 call center can be reached at 715-831-7425.