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After DPI guidance, local schools still undecided on fall reopening

School districts in the Chippewa Valley are holding off on making immediate decisions about how they’ll reopen this fall.

School officials say they’re planning to watch how the virus spreads through the summer, and will follow the lead of local health departments before deciding how, or if, students return to classrooms.

As of June, it’s still a toss-up if in-person classes will resume as normal for the first time since mid-March — or if districts will embrace a hybrid, on-again off-again approach as the state Department of Public Instruction suggested in new guidance Monday.

Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck expects the Eau Claire district to take a hybrid approach, with some teaching in person, some online.

The Eau Claire school board will likely hear a more detailed recommendation from the district’s coronavirus task force at its next meeting on July 20, Hardebeck said.

“Much of it is going to depend on what stage the virus is in and how prevalent it is in the area,” Hardebeck said Tuesday. “From what we’ve heard from our families, they are eager to get their students back in school, get them with their peers. We just want to make sure whatever approach we take is the safest and healthiest approach.”

Hardebeck praised the DPI’s recommendations, saying it’s what the district has been “waiting and hoping for from the DPI in terms of guidance.”

The Chippewa Falls school district also hasn’t yet decided how it will reopen its schools in the fall, but could make its decision closer to early August, said Michelle Golden, the district’s human resources and public relations director.

“We’re going to take the lead and advice (of the Chippewa County Department of Public Health) on where we’re at,” Golden said Tuesday.

It’s a similar situation at the Altoona school district, which expects to roll out a school reopening proposal later this summer, said Rick Risler, president of the Altoona school board.

The DPI’s new guidance calls for face masks, screening students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms, a maximum of 10 students per class and keeping buildings open as few as two days a week. It also includes considering modified schedules where students go to in-person classes as few as two days a week; bringing elementary students back first while keeping middle and high school students in virtual learning; rearranging desks; and adding other protections to limit potential virus exposure.

Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday that the DPI guidelines are merely suggestions, and local officials have the final say on how students will learn this fall.

As of Tuesday the virus has sickened over 25,000 and caused 750 deaths, according to the state Department of Health Services. Nearly 20,000 of those cases have recovered.

Opportunity to innovate

Instead of trying to recreate the experience of in-person classes — or focusing on what they can’t do — schools should focus this fall on teaching flexibility, problem-solving and communication, said Carmen Manning, dean of UW-Eau Claire’s College of Education and Human Sciences.

“We really should think carefully, not about how to replicate school as it’s been in the past, but about the most important kinds of learning that need to happen for our students … and put our energy there,” Manning said. “Don’t get lost in doing everything the way we’ve always done it.”

This fall, most schools in Wisconsin will probably use a hybrid approach to bringing students back, Manning predicted.

That would mean a big change for families, who would have to adapt to a new schedule — learning when kids have to go to school, versus stay home and work via a computer or iPad. Manning urged teachers to be clear about expectations and simplify day-to-day schedules as much as possible.

“Being in a hybrid situation will be a huge challenge for teachers, but I think they’re completely up to the challenge,” Manning said. “It’s a wonderful reminder to society about the high-quality teachers we have in the state.”

She also praised the DPI’s new guidance, saying she hopes the pandemic will have a silver lining: Schools will innovate. Perhaps they’ll reconsider how students’ days are organized — or realize that some students learn more efficiently in a different environment, Manning said.

“I think in pre-K-12 schooling, you might see more elements of virtual learning that get integrated,” Manning said. “(Right now), either we do online school or we do face-to-face school. But this pandemic is going to force us to think about how we blend those pieces together.”

Jordan Kallbreier, left, and Lucas Olson with Skid Steer Guy in Mondovi, work Tuesday morning on installing steps behind Lazy Monk Brewing. The steps will lead down to a recreational trail that goes underneath the Madison Street bridge, similar to a pedestrian underpass on the opposite bank of the Chippewa River. The new trail will connect to the Cannery District, an area the city is working to redevelop with new businesses and housing. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

Eau Claire city manager search resumes after pandemic delayed it

Delayed for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic, Eau Claire has now resumed its search for the next city manager.

The city had originally hoped to have a new leader in place this summer, but after COVID-19 hit and the recruitment process was set back, the new goal is for the next city manager to start in late fall.

“Ideally, if everything goes smoothly we’ll have someone by the end of the year,” City Council President Terry Weld said.

Current City Manager Dale Peters announced in early February that he would retire sometime in May. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic went global in mid-March, Peters decided to delay his retirement to continue leading the city through the crisis. He has not yet announced a new retirement date.

The council decided on March 17 to postpone its city manager recruitment process because it would be more difficult given that gatherings and travel were discouraged at the time.

“It just made sense for us to delay things,” Weld said.

He added that leaders in other cities that might consider the Eau Claire job would’ve been in the same position as Peters — staying put in their current jobs to manage the crisis for their communities.

But with restrictions on gatherings and travel now relaxed, the city is proceeding with its search.

On Tuesday evening, the council met via videoconference with a consultant the city hired to help with the recruitment process.

Sharon Klumpp, a director at Baker Tilly who specializes in executive recruitment and working with local governments, spoke about the job’s description and desired qualities for the next manager.

“We’re looking for someone who’s coming to Eau Claire not just for a job, but to really become part of the community,” she said.

Klumpp is beginning to create a brochure to advertise the job to potential candidates and broached the question of what pay the city would be willing to offer to the new hire.

Peters currently is paid a salary of $158,787, plus $4,764 in deferred compensation and a $6,000 annual car allowance, Klumpp said.

She surveyed similar-size Wisconsin cities and found their top staffers are currently making an average annual salary of $165,300. Managers recently hired at other midsized U.S. cities received offers averaging $164,100.

For Eau Claire’s strategy to attract quality candidates, Klumpp suggested the city advertise the job’s salary with a maximum of $175,000. She noted that does not commit the city into spending that much though, as the salary would depend on candidates’ experience and qualifications. Benefits and other types of compensation also could be negotiable within that maximum salary or extra, she noted.

Council Vice President Catherine Emmanuelle said Eau Claire needs to show it is serious about seeking candidates nationwide by listing a competitive salary for the job.

“In simple terms, ‘you get what you pay for,’” she said.

Councilwoman Emily Anderson voiced a note of concern at how that salary would compare to the lower wages made by most people in Eau Claire. However, she said that being competitive in hiring a new manager is in the best interests of the city.

Councilman David Klinkhammer said he’s comfortable setting the maximum salary of $175,000 because candidates will know “it’s not etched in stone” and there will be negotiations about the actual pay with the finalist.

“Let’s give ourselves the best opportunity to attract a quality person,” he said.

The council signaled Klumpp to begin writing up the job brochure with a pay ceiling of $175,000, but did not give their final OK on Tuesday. Council members said they wanted to consult with city finance and human resources staff about the potential budgetary impact of offering that salary before making a final decision.

Fauci: Next few weeks critical to tamping down virus

WASHINGTON (AP) — The next few weeks are critical to tamping down a disturbing coronavirus surge, Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress on Tuesday — issuing a plea for people to avoid crowds and wear masks just hours before mask-shunning President Donald Trump was set to hold a campaign rally in one hot spot.

Fauci and other top health officials also said they have not been asked to slow down virus testing, in contrast to Trump’s claim last weekend that he had ordered fewer tests be performed because they were uncovering too many infections. Trump said earlier Tuesday that he wasn’t kidding when he made that remark.

“We will be doing more testing,” Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, pledged to a House committee conducting oversight of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.

The leading public health officials spent more than five hours testifying before the committee at a fraught moment, with coronavirus cases rising in about half the states and political polarization competing for attention with public health recommendations.

Fauci told lawmakers he understands the pent-up desire to get back to normal as the U.S. begins emerging from months of stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. But that has “to be a gradual step-by-step process and not throwing caution to the wind,” he said.

“Plan A, don’t go in a crowd. Plan B, if you do, make sure you wear a mask,” Fauci said.

Troubling surges worsened Tuesday in several states, with Arizona, Texas and Nevada setting single-day records for new coronavirus cases, and some governors saying they’ll consider reinstating restrictions or delaying plans to ease up in order to help slow the spread of the virus.

Arizona, where Trump was headed for a rally at a Phoenix megachurch, reported a new daily record of nearly 3,600 additional coronavirus infections Tuesday. Arizona emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey lifted his stay-home orders in mid-May. Last week he allowed cities and counties to require masks in public places and many have done so.

Texas surpassed 5,000 new cases for a single day for the first time — just days after it eclipsed 4,000 new cases for the first time — as America’s largest pediatric hospital began taking adult patients to free up bed space in Houston. The infection rate in Texas has doubled since late May. And Nevada surpassed a record one-day increase for the fourth time in the past eight days. Other states also were experiencing worrisome surges, including Louisiana, Utah and South Carolina.

Another worrisome trend: an increase in infections among young adults. Fauci said while COVID-19 tends to be less severe in younger people, some of them do get very sick and even die. And younger people also may be more likely to show no symptoms yet still spread the virus.

If people say, “’I’m young, I’m healthy, who cares’ — you should care, not only for yourself but for the impact you might have” on sickening someone more vulnerable, Fauci said.

About 2.3 million Americans have been infected and some 120,000 have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia asked if Fauci regretted that the American public wasn’t urged sooner to wear face masks, and then interrupted before the visibly annoyed scientist finished answering.

Fauci said he didn’t regret the change in recommendations. Early in the pandemic there was a “paucity of equipment” for health workers “who put themselves daily in harm’s way” and “we did not want to divert” those scarce supplies, he said.

Scientists eventually recommended the general public use cloth masks, after they better understood that people with no symptoms could be spreading the virus — even though they don’t offer as much protection as the sophisticated masks reserved for health workers and aren’t a substitute for staying 6 feet away from other people.

Trump, meanwhile, doubled down on testing claims that have public health experts appalled, tweeting Tuesday:

“Cases are going up in the U.S. because we are testing far more than any other country, and ever expanding. With smaller testing we would show fewer cases! “

Less testing in fact means more infections going undetected. The U.S. was slow in ramping up and currently is testing about 500,000 people a day. Many experts say to control the spread of the virus, it should be testing 900,000 or more.

Brett Giroir, a Health and Human Services assistant secretary, told lawmakers Tuesday the next step is testing patient samples in large batches to stretch limited supplies, which would expand U.S. screening between fivefold and tenfold.

Instead of testing each person individually, health workers would pool samples from 50, 100 or more people from the same office or school, for example. A negative result would clear everyone, while a positive would require each person to be individually re-tested.

And Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added that it’s now required for workers in nursing homes — hard-hit by the virus — to be tested weekly.

As for the anxiously awaited vaccine, Fauci said he believes “it will be when and not if” it arrives, and he’s “cautiously optimistic” that some vaccine could be available at the end of the year.

More than a dozen vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing around the globe, and the U.S. next month is poised to begin the largest study — in 30,000 people — to get the needed proof that one really works. Meanwhile, countries, including the U.S. under a program called “Operation Warp Speed,” have begun stockpiling millions of doses of different shots, in hopes at least some will prove usable.

Health officials assured lawmakers Tuesday that there won’t be shortcuts on safety.

“We absolutely must maintain regulatory independence and make the right decision for the American people based on the science and the data,” said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

Democrats blasted Trump for confusing the public with erroneous statements — from testing to masks to unproven treatments — and ignoring the public health experts’ advice.

“It costs lives,” Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida said of Trump’s false claims. She urged the public health specialists to do more to counter the president: “We really expect you to be more outspoken.”

Pushed on whether schools should reopen in August and September, Redfield insisted that will vary not just by state but by school district, depending on how many infections are in a particular area.

“Many jurisdictions will be reopening schools,” and CDC will soon issue some guidelines to help, he said.

Fauci noted that schools should tailor their decisions to local conditions, saying some might need few restrictions and others more. He offered the same advice to colleges, saying they should assume some students will get infected and that there must be ways to keep them and their classmates safe.