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Eau Claire school officials optimistic about more 'normal' start to year
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EAU CLAIRE — Gov. Tony Evers and state schools Superintendent Jill Underly stopped in Eau Claire on Wednesday to play some “getting to know you” games with DeLong Middle School students on the first day of the new school year.

But an unmistakable seriousness loomed over the lighthearted activities: the start of a third consecutive school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the final months of 2019-20 shifted to all-virtual schooling as the pandemic emerged, the district during the spring 2021 semester used shortened weeks and a hybrid of in-person and virtual instruction to limit risk for students.

Full-time in-person instruction will return this year, despite a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths statewide driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

Mandatory masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors in schools regardless of vaccination status, as recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be the most visible virus mitigation strategy in the Eau Claire district and several other districts across the state. The district announced in July that after-school activities and athletics would return to regular schedules and seasons.

“It feels so good to start the year quote-unquote normal,” Underly said.

Armed with more knowledge about the virus, education officials are more confident this year about strategies to deal with the the coronavirus, Underly explained in a recent editorial.

“We just have to adjust and learn how to live with it,” Underly said Wednesday. “COVID, unfortunately, has shown us it’s not going anywhere. So we have to figure out how we co-exist with it and minimize disruptions in learning.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Health Services reported Wednesday that the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in the state is now 1,699 — the highest level in more than six months. The agency advised state residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19, wear a mask, avoid indoor gatherings and stay home if they feel sick to help prevent further spread of the virus in their communities.

When it comes to students, less than half of Eau Claire County teens from 13 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to state data, and all children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the vaccines.

While acknowledging the mask mandate has been controversial, Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mike Johnson said he is pleased that students’ back-to-school experience will be closer to normal this fall.

“One thing I think everybody agrees on in the Eau Claire area is that kids need to be in school five days a week in person,” Johnson said, noting that the in-person setting is important for social and emotional connections as well as academics.

At DeLong, Principal Michele Wiberg said she detects a positive vibe among teachers and staff.

“Staff are excited to have kids back in school five days and have a more normal year,” Wiberg said. “It’s been a great start to the day and a great start to the year.”

When cases of COVID-19 inevitably pop up among students this year, Wiberg said teachers will ensure they get access to their lessons and get whatever else they need to stay caught up in their classwork via the school’s online learning platform.

However, Johnson said, district students who need to be isolated or quarantined because of a positive COVID test will not be allowed to shift to virtual delivery — an option chosen by about 2,000 students last year — or to the Eau Claire Virtual School. Enrollment in the district’s virtual school is up from 50 last year to about 170 in 2021-22.

Evers did not make any public comments during the appearance, one of three school visits he was scheduled to make around the state Wednesday.

Earlier this week, WISN-TV in Milwaukee reported that the governor said he recognizes it’s a local decision but applauds those districts that are following the science by taking steps such as requiring masks to keep students and staff safe.

“Seeing those school board meetings being ripped apart by people that care on both sides is really disappointing because it’s going to make it more difficult to start the school year,” Evers said. “I think it’s going to be a good start to the school year as long as we can keep the politics out of it. People just need to settle down, do what they can, let the boards of education do their job and get school going.”

Underly agreed with that sentiment, saying, “We need to do whatever it takes because at the end of the day it’s not about us; it’s about the kids and it’s about their learning.”

US faith groups unite to help Afghanistan refugees after war

America’s major religions and denominations, often divided on other big issues, have united behind the effort to help receive an influx of refugees from Afghanistan following the end of the United States’ longest war and one of the largest airlifts in history.

Among those gearing up to help are Jewish refugee resettlement agencies and Islamic groups; conservative and liberal Protestant churches; and prominent Catholic relief organizations, providing everything from food and clothes to legal assistance and housing.

“It’s incredible. It’s an interfaith effort that involved Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim, Jews, Episcopalians ... Hindus ... as well as nonfaith communities who just believe that maybe it’s not a matter of faith, but it’s just a matter of who we are as a nation,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The U.S. and its coalition partners have evacuated more than 100,000 people from Afghanistan since the airlift began Aug. 14, including more than 5,400 American citizens and many Afghans who helped the U.S. during the 20-year war.

The effort by faith groups to help resettle them follows a long history of religious involvement in refugee policy, said Stephanie Nawyn, a sociologist at Michigan State University who focuses on refugee issues.

Decades before the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program was created in 1980, faith organizations advocated for the resettlement of Jewish refugees during World War II. Religious groups also helped receive people who fled wars in Vietnam, the Balkans and elsewhere.

Besides helping distribute government resources, the groups mobilize private assets such as donations and volunteers and work with other private entities to provide supplies and housing, Nawyn said.

U.S. resettlement agencies were gutted under former President Donald Trump, who slashed refugee admissions yearly until they reached a record low. Now agencies are scrambling to expand capacity so they can handle the influx from Afghanistan.

“It’s a historic effort, and there are and have been challenges — especially after rebounding from four years of what was a war on immigration, which decimated the refugee resettlement infrastructure,” O’Mara Vignarajah said.

“Some of our local offices might have resettled 100 families throughout the entirety of last year, and they may now be looking at 100 families in the next few weeks,” she said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities and other agencies have been welcoming Afghan families at U.S. military bases where they’re being housed temporarily.

A major challenge is finding affordable housing in areas where Afghans have typically resettled, including California and the Washington, D.C., region.

“I’m very concerned about children, getting them into schools,” said Bill Canny, executive director of the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services program.

World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization, has helped resettle about 360 Afghans in the past month and is expecting many more, said Matthew Soerens, the group’s U.S. director of church mobilization.

“These are individuals in many cases who have put their lives at risk and their families’ lives at risk for the people of the United States of America,” he said. “Now that they’re facing the risk of retribution and retaliation from the Taliban ... I think most Americans of all religious traditions see it as a moral imperative for us to keep our promise.”

Among the evacuees are Afghans who obtained special immigrant visas after working with the U.S. or NATO as interpreters or in some other capacity; people who have applied for the visas but not yet received them; and those who might have been particularly in danger under the Taliban.

But thousands of others who also qualified for visas have been left behind because of a backlog of applications, and faith-based groups have called on President Joe Biden’s administration to get them safely to the U.S.

“Some of the cases we are involved with have gotten out, but many have not,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Jewish refugee agency HIAS, one of nine groups that contract with the State Department on resettlement.

“We have a girl who was literally shot by the Taliban and is now severely disabled who can’t get out,” he said. “We are aware of many, many others who are trapped — and the U.S. has left them behind.”

Biden says he has tasked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to coordinate with international partners to hold the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for those who want to leave in the days ahead.

The president has historically supported receiving refugees, co-sponsoring legislation that created the government’s program in 1980. This June, for World Refugee Day, Biden said that “resettling refugees helps reunite families, enriches the fabric of America and enhances our standing, influence and security in the world.”

Ardiane Ademi, director of the Refugee Resettlement Program for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, said it recently resettled several families who left Afghanistan before the airlift and is bracing for hundreds more.

John Koehlinger, executive director of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, said his agency has received two families through the special immigrant visa program and has begun receiving additional evacuees. But other families the agency had been expecting have not yet arrived.

“Hopefully some or all of them are on a U.S. military base being processed,” he said.

Ademi and Koehlinger said individuals and local congregations have volunteered to help with resettlement. Some have worked with refugees before, while others are newcomers motivated by the desperate news out of Afghanistan.

“It’s a huge response,” Ademi said.

The humanitarian arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been providing personal hygiene items, underwear, sandals and toys to refugees at an air base in Qatar, church spokesman Doug Anderson said.

Widely known as the Mormon church, it has also been distributing supplies to the thousands of Afghans temporarily sheltered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. And it is working with the U.S. military to provide aid to the 10,000 refugees expected to arrive at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, from where they will be relocated in communities across the country.

Hala Halabi, national director of refugee facilitation for the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA, said Muslim Americans have been flooding the group with calls, emails and text messages offering to make donations, mentor refugees or prepare welcome boxes.

The nonprofit recently furnished three apartments in the Dallas area with everything from the “doormat to the food in the fridge,” Halabi said, and is collecting supplies from pots and microwaves to pasta, sugar and cleaning agents as it prepares for additional arrivals.

Beyond the response from Muslim Americans, Halabi said she is heartened by how different faith groups have mobilized to help refugees: “It’s amazing from everybody.”

Eau Claire Transit moves hub of city bus network to temporary site

EAU CLAIRE — City buses will begin using a temporary downtown transfer center today(Thursday, Sept. 2) while the building that has served for decades as the hub of Eau Claire’s public transit system nears its end.

A concrete island and barriers erected this summer in a city-owned parking lot at the east corner of South Farwell and Gray streets will serve Eau Claire Transit through 2022 while a new, permanent center is built.

“We’re excited that everything’s becoming a reality,” Transit Manager Tom Wagener said of the latest milestone for the new permanent transfer center that’s been years in the making.

In the next couple weeks, the small single-story building on the 400 block of South Barstow Street that’s served as the center of Eau Claire’s bus network since 1984 will be demolished.

Construction work on a new transfer center slated for the same site is scheduled to begin on Sept. 13. The new center will be the ground floor of a multi-story building being constructed through a public-private partnership with Iowa-based Merge Urban Development Group. Three decks of structured parking will sit on top of the bus center, and above that will be three levels of apartments.

The new transfer center is scheduled to open late next year, but in the meantime the temporary site will be in service.

Not everything is in place for it yet though. Manufacturing delays that have become common during the COVID-19 pandemic have slowed delivery of two bus shelters the city ordered for the temporary center. Currently they are scheduled to come in mid-October, Wagener said.

Before the shelters arrive, the city will put up tents for riders to protect them from the elements.

A portable restroom will also be moved to the temporary center for riders to use. A trailer already on-site will serve as the breakroom for bus drivers.

The temporary transfer center will employ a new method for queuing buses the city intends to use in the permanent center that will be built.

“The design we set out there will be what we have in the new transfer center site,” Wagener said.

The old transfer center’s limited space and layout simply led buses to park in the order they arrived to pick up and drop off passengers. This meant riders had to look carefully to the marquee on the front of each bus to make sure they boarded the right one.

But with more space available at the temporary and future transfer centers, there are designated spots where buses serving specific routes will park. Signs at the temporary center will also let riders know which bus route is loading and unloading in each spot, Wagener said.