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Eau Claire school board to consider mandatory mask policy for 2020-21 school year

The Eau Claire school board is slated to take up a discussion of making masks mandatory inside school buildings — except for meals, athletics and other special situations — sometime this summer before classes begin on Sept. 1.

The discussion on masks comes at the request of several board members; member Joshua Clements proposed the mask requirement policy at a meeting Monday night, but the discussion was postponed for later in the summer.

A policy requiring students, employees and staff to wear masks most of the time inside school buildings would mean a step past the policy in a reopening plan approved by the board Monday night.

According to the approved plan, masks are only required when physical distancing isn’t possible. School administrators said Monday that students and teachers will be distanced within their classrooms.

It’s unclear if under the current plan students are required to wear masks on school buses.

“We’re having conversations about masks on the buses and whether or not that’s something that we’ll consider,” said Kim Koller, executive director of administration.

Also in the newly approved plan, Eau Claire students in most grades will likely return to in-person classes this September for two days a week, learning online for the other three days.

After several hours of discussion Monday night, the board at midnight voted 6-1 to approve a plan submitted by school administrators to reopen schools for limited days each week for the 2020-21 academic year. School board member Marquell Johnson cast the dissenting vote.

The plan is flexible and may change in the six weeks before classes begin, depending on if the spread of the virus accelerates or slows down in Eau Claire County in August, board members and school officials emphasized.

Schools will also offer an all-virtual option for any K-12 student who wants to learn online.

In the reopening plan:

  • Kindergarten and third through 12th grade students will attend in-person classes for two days per week, virtual learning for the other three day. Students will be assigned to a Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday cohort for in-person classes.
  • First and second grade students will attend in-person classes four days per week on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
  • Pre-K students will attend in-person classes only two days per week, either in a Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday cohort.
  • For special education students, programming options will be “determined on an individual basis.”
  • All classes will be held virtually on Wednesdays, district-wide, so classrooms can be cleaned and disinfected.

The district is “committed to sending a household to school together,” Koller said — it plans to send siblings to school on the same cohort days; one sibling wouldn’t attend Monday-Tuesday and another on Thursday-Friday.

Students in first and second grades will get four days of in-person classes each week because first grade is “continually identified as the most important grade for skill development,” and because second grade classes missed a significant portion of their spring semester, Koller said.

But those first and second grade classes will be spread out among many classrooms to allow for social distancing.

The school district doesn’t have the space to give more grades four days per week of in-person classes, Koller said.

“With this model we are repurposing spaces in the building, and spaces that are typically not a classroom may become a classroom,” Koller said. “But if we had everyone in the building five days a week or scheduled any overlap between groups, we wouldn’t be able to meet the social distancing rules.”

An all-virtual cohort

In a survey, 90% of families who responded said they wanted some degree of in-person learning, said Jim Schmidt, executive director of teaching and learning.

In that same survey, 38% of families said they wanted a hybrid school year, and about 6% asked for virtual-only, Schmidt said.

The school district plans to reach out to families directly to ask if they plan to use the fully virtual option, Schmidt noted, which will impact how many staff members the district must have.

“If that 6% actually do apply to be virtual, that’s going to be a significant number of students, which will require a significant number of staff,” Schmidt said.

But students might not be able to switch back and forth during the year. If a student chooses the all-virtual option, their ability to return to in-person classes during the year will depend on classroom and building space, Schmidt said.

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.

Several teachers also urged the board to consider additional safety precautions, some asking for masks, others asking for an all-virtual school year in light of the virus.

In Eau Claire County, daily new cases have risen by 50% in the first two weeks of July compared with 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.

The school district will follow the guidelines of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, administrators said.

But it’s a possibility that during the school year, the Health Department may step in to close school buildings or classrooms if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19, said Lieske Giese, the department’s director, on Monday. It’s something that happens “rarely” with other diseases, she said, but “it could happen with COVID-19.”

NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that fall classes will begin on Sept. 1.

EC County Board to consider monthly furloughs

Beginning Friday, county operations could be closed one day each month for the remainder of 2020.

The Eau Claire County Board was scheduled to consider a resolution implementing the action during its meeting Tuesday night to lower spending amid financial challenges caused by COVID-19. The County Board did not vote on the proposal by Leader-Telegram press time Tuesday night, partly due to delays caused by technical issues.

If approved, employees would not work nor receive pay during those closure days. Law enforcement, airport, Meals on Wheels and 24-hour operations workers are exempt from the furloughs. If necessary, the resolution allows county highway staff to work on furlough days if emergency activities like snow removal are required. The first furlough day is scheduled for Friday, July 24. The county would also be closed Aug. 21, Sep. 18, Oct. 16, Nov. 13 and Dec. 18, all of which are Fridays.

The resolution also suspends step increases for employees that were scheduled for July 1, which the county COVID-19 task force approved, effective immediately, during its June 24 meeting. Suspending pay raises means county spending on wages would decrease in 2020 by a total of about $238,000, according to county Finance Director Norb Kirk.

According to the resolution, the actions “will assist in erasing most of the projected deficit” of $1.7 million for 2020 caused by COVID-19. If the county’s financial health improves by the end of the year, County Administrator Kathryn Schauf can remove furlough days and retroactively apply step increases, with the approval of a majority of task force members.

Kirk provided projections regarding next year’s budget to the board. Based on initial department submissions, 2021 tax levy requests are about $38.91 million. Kirk estimates that the county will receive about $37.31 million in tax levy in 2021, resulting in an initial shortfall of about $1.6 million. That deficit includes the assumption made by Kirk that sales tax revenue will be about $750,000 less in 2021 than 2020.

Going forward, Kirk said financial risks include the unknown impact of coronavirus on sales tax collection; a potential decrease in state funding for various county programs; and courts activity decreasing in 2021.

Another item slated to be voted on by the County Board is a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. If that resolution is approved, Eau Claire County would be added to the Wisconsin Public Health Association 2018 declaration that stated racism is a public health crisis. The Eau Claire City-County Health Department is part of that WPHA declaration as well, and the Health Department reviewed and supported the County Board resolution.

The resolution outlines the ways in which racism manifests, including housing, education, employment and criminal justice. It also proposes six action steps the County Board should take going forward to ensure that racial equity is a key factor in all county decisions, including a review of internal policies and procedures; increasing diversity and instituting antiracist policies; and working with local entities to make racial progress.

Members of Clear Vision Eau Claire, a citizen group focused on community planning, expressed support for the resolution during the public comment portion of the board meeting.

The County Board will also vote on a resolution from the Parks and Forest Committee “requesting assistance from the State of Wisconsin in light of the Verso Paper Mill closures.”

According to a fact sheet given to the board, Verso mills in Duluth, Minn., and Wisconsin Rapids are closing indefinitely at the end of July. The mill in Wisconsin Rapids accounts for about 15% of hardwood harvested in the Eau Claire County Forest and around 25% of all Wisconsin timber. More than 600 people in Eau Claire County work in the timber industry, so the closures will have a significant impact on local residents.

The resolution asks the governor and Wisconsin legislature to provide “direct assistance, in any way possible,” to either allow the mills to continue operating or provide money to people impacted by the closures. The resolution was forwarded to the Wisconsin Counties Association and Wisconsin County Forests Association.

Check Thursday’s Leader-Telegram for updates from the remainder of the meeting.

AP centerpiece
Astronauts squeeze in last spacewalk before SpaceX departure

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Astronauts squeezed in one last spacewalk Tuesday before turning their attention to the all-important end to SpaceX’s first crew flight.

Making their fourth and final spacewalk in under a month, NASA’s Bob Behnken and Chris Cassidy whipped through a variety of maintenance tasks outside the International Space Station.

Instead of swapping batteries, they routed cables, hooked up a tool storage chest and removed thermal shielding from a docking port that will house a commercial airlock later this year.

Behnken had to scrape away a shiny metallic blob — some sort of debris — from the round rim of the port. This port is the future home of a domed airlock provided by the Houston-based company Nanoracks to release satellites and experiments into open space.

SpaceX will launch this first-ever commercial airlock this fall.

It was the 10th spacewalk in each astronaut’s career, tying the U.S. record set by previous space station residents.

Tuesday’s 5½-hour outing put Behnken’s total time out in the vacuum of space at 61 hours and Cassidy’s at nearly 55 hours.

“It’s a little more comfortable on the 10th one than the first one,” said Cassidy. “The view’s always amazing, though.”

In less than two weeks, Behnken and Doug Hurley, who monitored the spacewalk from inside, will depart the orbiting complex in the same SpaceX Dragon crew capsule in which they arrived at the end of May.

SpaceX is aiming for a splashdown off the Florida coast in August — the first splashdown for astronauts in 45 years.

Weather permitting, the Dragon capsule will parachute into the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida Panhandle.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said once Tuesday’s spacewalk is finished, the astronauts are “going to be focused like a laser on coming home.”

Bridenstine said the SpaceX test flight has gone exceedingly well so far. “And I’m knocking on wood because it is not over until Bob and Doug are home,” he said at a Space Foundation panel discussion Monday

The first-stage booster used to launch Behnken and Hurley on May 30 blasted off for a second time Monday from Cape Canaveral. It landed on a floating platform in the Atlantic after hoisting a satellite for South Korea’s military, to be used again for another flight.

Cassidy and two Russians will remain aboard the orbiting lab until October.