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State to waive road tests for new drivers; driving schools hope to reopen May 26

Mallory Pieper was slated to take her road test and get her driver’s license March 24, three days after her 16th birthday.

However, that test was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns, along with the rescheduled April 27 test. It has left her in limbo, wondering when she would finally get her license.

“At first it was frustrating, but then I realized there aren’t many places to go right now,” she said.

Pieper, an Eau Claire North student, has just one driving instructional class left, and she’s excited that the state took steps Tuesday to allow her to get her license soon.

Because driving schools and behind-the-wheel testing has been shut down since mid-March, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles announced plans for the agency to catch up, and make it easier for teenagers to now get their driver’s licenses.

In a memo released Tuesday morning, the DMV announced two pilot programs to ease rules on obtaining licenses.

“Due to the pandemic, there is a backlog of about 16,000 road tests with an additional demand of approximately 2,100 new drivers each week,” the memo states.

The first pilot program waives the requirement of road tests for 16- and 17-year-old drivers who have successfully completed an approved driver education program, including behind-the-wheel instruction. However, a parent or guardian must agree to the road test being waived.

The second pilot program allows eligible drivers to renew their driver’s license online and receive their new card in the mail. To learn more, visit wisconsindmv.gov/renewDL

Driving schools should be allowed to resume offering behind-the-wheel instructional courses on May 26. Pieper is hopeful to get her last class in and immediately get her license.

“It was surprising because I didn’t think I’d get it anytime soon,” Pieper said of the DMV’s memo. “I’ve gotten a lot more practice in, so I feel I’d have less stress anyway.”

Area driving schools applauded the DMV’s plan.

“We know as each week passes, we will fall further behind,” said Marty Fadness, owner of Safety & Respect Driving School in Eau Claire. “(This plan) is good, it’s solid, it’s very specific. It’s something we can have right in front of us.”

Fadness added: “The idea of the waiver is wonderful for the students. That will save the DMV a ton of testing. It’s a good move by the DMV to give these kids, who’ve had a tough spring, a break.”

Ryan Hammett, owner of Accountable Driver Education in Eau Claire, described it as “pretty big news,” adding it “puts a lot of pressure on us driving schools to start lessons right away.”

Hammett and Fadness are optimistic they will be allowed to reopen on May 26 when Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order is set to expire.

“The only thing we can offer right now is online driver’s education,” Hammett said. “We have a plan in place to reopen. We’ll require masks for students and drivers, and we’ll clean the car after each use. We have notices on the website that we’ll be requiring masks.”

Fadness said they explored the idea of also putting up clear curtains or plastic shields, but ultimately decided it would be a hazard. Fadness said he also will require instructors to wear masks; at this time he hasn’t decided if students also will be required to wear them.

Normally, Hammett said, students would probably have six behind-the-wheel instructional sessions spread out to roughly once a month, beginning when they are 15½, and finishing as they are turning 16 when they are allowed to take the road test.

With the backlog of students seeking behind-the-wheel driving lessons, Hammett said he could see students perhaps getting lessons up to twice a week.

“We’ll let kids speed that up a bit,” Hammett said.

Fadness has about 30 instructors, providing lessons from Superior to Whitehall to River Falls. He estimates that means 1,000 to 1,200 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction time each month.

“We’ll be 1,800 to 2,000 hours behind,” Fadness said. “So, it’s figuring out how to add those hours back. It will be a trying two or three months, getting ourselves back above water.”

Fadness has added some more vehicles to his fleet. Normally, an instructor would work a six-hour day behind the wheel. Fadness said he anticipates they will switch to eight- or nine-hour days to get more students behind the wheel. He expects to be busy throughout the entire summer, catching up on the time lost at the end of March, all of April, and most of May.

“We’re excited to go,” Fadness said.

Usually, a car would contain four people during driving lessons: the instructor and three students. Because of COVID-19 concerns, both Hammett and Fadness said they plan to limit the number of people to three, with just one person in the back seat.

Hammett has owned his driving school for two years. He said the company has been getting by with the online classroom instructional lessons.

“They mix in slides and videos, and it stops and asks questions,” Hammett said. “It’s pretty close to the classroom experience. That keeps us afloat, thankfully. We’re going to have pent-up demand. So it’s delayed revenue, not lost revenue.”

Springtime is usually the busiest time of the year for driving schools, after snow melts and it stays sunnier later into the evening.

“It’s driver’s education season; it begins in mid-March when they get back from spring break,” Fadness said.

Since the shutdown in mid-March, Fadness said he has issued a few refunds to people who couldn’t get their behind-the-wheel instructional time. Hammett said he didn’t have any requests for refunds.

“Everyone wants their licenses,” Hammett said.

Conservative justices bash stay-at-home order

MADISON — Conservative justices who control the Wisconsin Supreme Court raised doubts Tuesday about whether Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order is legal, asserting that the Legislature never intended to give the executive branch so much power.

Justice Rebecca Bradley suggested during oral arguments over the order that state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm’s decision to extend the mandate without legislative input amounts to tyranny. She also questioned whether Palm might next herd people into social distancing camps akin to World War II Japanese internment camps.

“There is a constitutional problem with the Legislature giving away this much power to an unelected cabinet secretary,” Bradley said. “The people never consented to a single individual having that much power.”

Evers issued an order in March requiring people to stay in their homes and avoid nonessential travel to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The order also required schools and nonessential businesses to close and banned public gatherings. Palm, a member of Evers’ Cabinet, unilaterally extended the order until May 26 at the governor’s direction.

Republican legislators filed a lawsuit directly with the Supreme Court arguing Palm overstepped her authority. They contend the order is really an administrative rule and as such is subject to legislative approval. They’ve asked the court to issue an injunction blocking the rule but stay imposition for six days to give the DHS time to properly promulgate an emergency administrative rule.

The administration’s attorneys have countered that state law clearly gives the DHS broad authority to combat communicable diseases. They face an uphill fight, though. Conservatives hold a 5-2 majority on the court.

The court conducted oral arguments via video conference Tuesday. The Republican legislators’ attorney, Ryan Walsh, called the stay-at-home order the most sweeping edict in state history.

“The people have no means to oversee this exercise of power that derives from them in the first place,” he said.

The arguments grew testy as the conservative justices seemed to paint the order as an Evers’ power grab.

“People can go to prison for leaving their homes unless it’s OK with the DHS secretary,” Bradley said during an exchange with DHS’ attorney, Assistant Attorney General Colin Roth. “Under your interpretation of the statutes, she can do whatever she wants and can order people to go to jail if they don’t comply. The secretary could step in and do this every flu season.”

Justice Dan Kelly said Palm can’t criminalize people’s behavior; only the Legislature can create new crimes, he said. Justice Annette Ziegler suggested the order conflicts with local health authorities’ ability to fight the virus.

Roth argued that lawmakers in the past granted the DHS broad authority to fight diseases because they understood the state may have to move quickly. The secretary wouldn’t impose such strict limitations during every flu season because there’s no support from the medical community for such drastic steps, he said.

Blocking the stay-at-home order now would be “devastating and extraordinarily unwise,” Roth said.

“The disease will spread like wildfire with no weapon to fight it,” he said. “People will die if this order is enjoined with nothing to replace it.”

Ziegler said that even if the justices agree the pandemic is a “pretty bad scenario” and the order makes sense, they must apply the constitution and the law.

It’s unclear when the court may rule.

Also on Tuesday, the Department of Health Services announced new metrics hospitals must meet in order to enter the first phase of Evers’ reopening plan. Ninety-five percent of hospitals must affirm they can treat all patients without crisis care, such as inadequate staffing, and 95% would also have to arrange for testing for all symptomatic clinical staff treating patients.

Another previously announced criteria for entering the first phase of the reopening plan was a downward percentage of positive coronavirus tests over 14 days. The percentage of positive cases decreased Tuesday for the second straight day but has been relatively flat the past 14 days.

As of Tuesday, 353 people had died from the virus in Wisconsin and there were more than 8,500 positive cases.

New board president: Priorities are achievement gap, building relationships

The Eau Claire school board’s new president — a former educator, doctor of education policy and district parent — said his priorities include closing the achievement gap and building rapport with district staff and the community.

Tim Nordin was unanimously voted board president at an annual reorganization meeting on Monday.

Presidents’ terms last for one year; the board reorganizes every spring after the election.

Nordin, 41, a Hopkins, Minn., native, is a former high school science teacher with a doctorate in education policy from Rutgers University. He was first elected to the board in spring 2019 after an unsuccessful spring 2018 campaign.

“I want to see us working to build a focus across the various levels of our district,” Nordin told the Leader-Telegram Tuesday. “We obviously are going to be asking for a referendum in the spring, connecting with the community and building support for that.”

Closing that achievement gap will begin with understanding the data involving a student body that’s largely white, Nordin said: “We have achievement gaps where you might expect achievement gaps, if you look anywhere in education today … I want to work with the people on the front lines and dig into the research base we have in our district, state and even around the nation to find those best practices, then be willing to make that leap and push for them.”

Nordin is replacing outgoing board President Eric Torres, who announced Monday he would resign from the board to take a position as associate chair in the Education Studies Department at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Torres served as president for a year.

Torres praised the board Monday after announcing his resignation, which is effective May 29: “I have been deeply inspired by your dedication, and I am most grateful for your collegiality and friendship.”

At the school board, Nordin is taking the helm in a tumultuous spring.

COVID-19 school closures have rocked districts across the state, forcing teachers and administrators to pivot to at-home learning.

The board selected the district’s new superintendent, Mike Johnson, in April; Johnson will begin in the role on July 1 when longtime superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck departs the district.

The board must also fill two recent resignations: Torres’ and former member Laurie Klinkhammer’s seats will both be vacant at the end of May. It marks three resignations from the board since November, when Joe Luginbill resigned.

All the while, the board is gearing up for a spring 2021 referendum. It will have to nail down what kind of projects to chase, and a precise dollar amount it will ask the community for, within the upcoming year.

“Of course this year is going to be a real challenge, but I’m heartened by my colleagues that are on the board now,” Nordin said. “We’ve developed an amazing teamwork and I’m excited to welcome new colleagues as we replace Laurie and Eric’s seats.”

More coronavirus-related difficulties could also be waiting in the wings for school districts: Should they plan for in-person classes in the fall, or pivot to at-home learning again? The district will follow public health guidance and direction from the governor when the district makes that decision, Nordin said.

Fallout from the virus could squeeze school districts’ budget even more tightly next year. Nordin said the administration is already preparing for that possibility, but that the future is still uncertain.

“We don’t know the state of the budget at this point for next year,” he said. “... We still may end up with the funding we’re expecting. I don’t want to stoke fear and rumor we’re going to cut a bunch of things, because we just don’t know right now.

“There will be some decisions we haven’t had to make so far, but I’m really heartened,” Nordin said of his fellow board members. “I don’t feel like I have to carry all that burden myself.”

Nordin has also served on the district’s Demographic Trends and Facilities Planning Committee for four years, a group that gives recommendations to the board about school boundaries, school capacity and student demographic patterns.

Nordin and his wife Terri’s two sons attend South Middle School and Memorial High School, respectively.