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EC school district proposes masks, social distancing, alternating school days; reopening discussion coming Monday

A decision on how the Eau Claire school district will reopen five secondary schools, 12 elementary schools and two charter schools may come Monday, when the Eau Claire school board is slated to discuss how schools may reopen as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

The school district released their proposed plan Wednesday evening. It would bring the majority of students — kindergarten and 3rd through 12th grade students — back to school buildings for in-person classes for two days each week, and send them back home for three days of virtual learning. Those students would be assigned to a Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday cohort while they’re physically at school buildings.

On Wednesdays, district-wide, all classes would be held virtually so classrooms can be cleaned and disinfected, according to the district’s plan.

There’s a different plan for 1st and 2nd grade students: They would attend in-person classes four days per week — on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, according to the plan.

Kids in the pre-kindergarten program would only attend in-person classes with teachers for two days per week, either in a Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday cohort.

The district’s special education students will get programming options “determined on an individual basis,” according to the plan.

Notably, the school district proposed to offer a 100% virtual learning option for any K-12 student who wants to learn from home.

Students and staff will have to stay six feet apart “whenever possible,” wash their hands and use hand sanitizer often, the district said in a news release.

If that’s not possible, “we will require students to wear masks” along with staff members, said Michael Johnson, Eau Claire schools superintendent, in a video the district posted on its Facebook page Wednesday night. “We’re receiving masks from the state to provide to all students.”

That’s the school district’s proposal for all but the most severe scenarios.

The district plans to follow the lead of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, it said in a news release Wednesday evening. When the Health Department is in one of any five stages of its seven-stage reopening plan, the school district would use the scenario above.

The county is currently operating under the the fifth stage of the reopening plan, with stage one being the most restrictive (a “Safer at Home” order situation) and stage seven being the least.

But there are two possible scenarios that would drastically change how Eau Claire schools function this year. If the county goes back under a “Safer at Home” public order — like the state was under earlier this spring, when schools closed in mid-March — all instruction for all students would go 100% online. On the other hand, if the virus’ spread slows drastically and the Health Department moves to abolish all COVID-19-related restrictions and recommendations, the district would transition all students back to in-person classes “over a period of several weeks,” according to its announcement.

Johnson said Wednesday in the video: “Please keep in mind circumstances can change over the next few weeks, which means we must continue to remain flexible in both planning and execution.”

The Health Department has updated its public health order every two weeks, and has said it plans to continue doing so.

The Health Department’s step-by-step plan is posted at their website,, and can also be found at

Johnson said Wednesday in a statement: “By working in alignment with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, we can help ensure that we have the proper measures and learning model in place to protect the health and safety of our students, staff and families. We look forward to a good discussion on Monday evening as we work with the Board to determine the best steps forward in preparing for the upcoming school year.”

The first day of school for all students is Sept. 1.

Right: The city of Eau Claire Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department is beginning a new “Adopt-a-Park” initiative, allowing individuals, families, work or church groups or other groups to “adopt” Eau Claire park areas and monitor them monthly for a two-year period. Signs will be posted in the park areas featuring the adoption groups. For more information, people can email or call 715-839-5032.

Area officials implore public to wear a mask in public spaces

Several business leaders, doctors and Eau Claire area officials made a joint plea Wednesday, urging the public to wear masks in public.

Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County public health director, spoke during a virtual meeting, donning a mask from her desk.

“This is partly to show we can do this,” Giese said of wearing a mask during her comments. “I can do this to partly protect those around me.”

Giese said the county saw five new cases Wednesday, and it has 10 active outbreak investigations. She said it shows the need to stress mask-wearing to get the virus under control.

“We are seeing numbers increase around Wisconsin and our highest have been in the last few days,” Giese said. “We can’t afford to be in a place where we have rapidly increasing cases like other parts of the United States.”

Facemasks should be worn outdoors when in a “shared space” around other people, she added.

“We wear in settings where we encounter other people,” she said.

Masks aren’t mandated at this time, but Giese wouldn’t rule that out in the future if cases continue to climb.

Giese praised city leaders and the Chamber of Commerce for urging the use of masks.

“Many in Eau Claire are wearing face masks, and I want to thank you for that,” Giese said. “Each person who is deciding to do that is making a difference.”

Dr. Richard Helmers of Mayo Clinic Health System also stressed the need for wearing cloth coverings.

“It is crucial as this time, to reduce the spread of this infection, to wear masks in public,” Helmers said. “It is important that as many people mask as possible.”

Eau Claire city manager Dale Peters said that the county is considered to be at high risk in four of five metrics compiled by the Department of Health Services. Peters said that if the cases aren’t brought under control, it can overwhelm the medical services and hospitals in the region.

Bruce Barker, Chippewa Valley Technical College president, said that masks are required throughout its campus.

“We know the pandemic doesn’t take a day off,” Barker said. “We can’t afford to be shut down. If you want your businesses to stay open, if you want your schools to stay open, wear a mask.”

David Minor, Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce president, said he trusts the health officials when they say face masks work to reduce spread.

“We are concerned about the economic standpoint,” Minor said. “Our businesses are going to go through closures again if we don’t curb this. We’re seeing that around the nation. Whether you like wearing a mask or not, respect those who are doing it.”

Giese added it isn’t hard to wear a mask.

“We know it’s a marathon. This is one of the ways we can run this marathon together in a more effective way,” Giese said.

Audit: Too much, not enough sent to Wisconsin unemployed

MADISON — An unknown number of unemployed people in Wisconsin received too much, or not enough, in benefits from the state Department of Workforce in late April as it worked to process additional money in federal aid to help those suddenly out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, an audit released Wednesday found.

The Legislative Audit Bureau said the department, which has faced intense criticism from Republicans for not processing unemployment claims more quickly, should determine how many people were sent incorrect amounts and how much, then report back by Aug. 14. The department is implementing all of the audit’s recommendations, said agency Secretary Caleb Frostman.

The department announced on April 30 that it had overpaid unemployment recipients. The overpayments were associated with retroactive benefits and the new temporary $600 a week in additional federal benefits made available to help address layoffs caused by the pandemic, the audit said.

The audit identified $21.2 million in overpayments through direct deposit and debit cards. The department said it canceled nearly all of the overpayments, about $19.6 million, before the money was received by recipients.

Only payments to recipients with accounts at U.S. Bank were deposited. That amounted to about $4.8 million to 2,340 people, the audit said. The department said it recovered all but about $115,000 of those incorrect deposits.

However, there may have been even more overpayments and underpayments to an unknown number of people on April 28 and April 29, the audit said. It recommended that the department determine the total amount in underpayments and overpayments and report back to the Legislature’s Audit Committee by Aug. 14. Frostman agreed and said the agency would do that.

The audit also called for those who were underpaid to receive what they were owed in unemployment benefits “as quickly as possible.” Frostman said that earlier this month the department manually issued nearly $90,000 in payments to 52 people who were underpaid and is working on an automated process to pay the rest by Aug. 14.

“The actual payment processing should be the least difficult part of getting claimants their benefits,” said Republican state Rep. Samantha Kerkman, co-chair of the Legislature’s Audit Committee. “It is alarming to find that there were either no process controls to ensure that payments do not process twice or that they were ignored.”

Republican Sen. Rob Cowles, the other committee co-chair, said he appreciated the department’s willingness to make changes recommended by the audit, but that he still had concerns about the unemployment program. That includes how quickly claims are processed, benefit payment delays and difficulty connecting through the phone system, Cowles said.

About 141,000 have not received unemployment benefits they applied for as the state continues to work through a backlog of cases and claims that surged to unprecedented levels in March as businesses shut down due to the virus. The Department of Workforce Development has processed about 3.7 million claims in four months, more than twice as many as it did in all of last year.

The department has tripled its staff who process claims and resolve disputes and also added call center staff to help with those calling for assistance.