As it begins discussions about the fall semester, the Eau Claire school district is bracing for another virtual semester or a hybrid on-again, off-again approach.

A new task force of principals, administrators and school and busing representatives will look at three possibilities:

  • A 100% virtual/online approach. Forced to stay closed if the coronavirus resists preventative measures, schools could continue delivering instruction via the internet, as they have since mid-March.
  • A 100% in-person approach. If the virus recedes, “we go back to school in September as if this spring didn’t really happen and we don’t have any restrictions on space or limits on gathering,” said Kim Koller, executive director of administration. “We don’t have to worry about illnesses among students and staff.” But an all in-person fall semester would mean stepped-up cleaning and disinfecting in classrooms, and a relaxation of spring semester guidelines from the state.
  • Schools could take a hybrid approach. If in fall, large gatherings are still prohibited, classes of more than 10 students might have to be split up. If social distancing is still required, desks and cafeteria seating may have to be six feet apart. “One option is to alternate (days),” Koller said. “Another option could be morning and afternoon programming. It could vary by age of students.”

A hybrid method might be the most difficult. On-again, off-again in-person classes, or alternating groups of students in a building, would mean regular disinfecting of about 1.9 million square feet of buildings, as the district’s buildings and grounds crew did this spring, Koller said.

Students would likely have some instruction virtually, and some in person, Schmitt said. Schools would have to balance classes with cleaning.

Social distancing might throw the biggest wrench into the plans.

“If I have 27 fourth-graders and the limits on gathering is 10, that means I can have nine children and a teacher in a classroom,” Koller said. “If that class were then to become face-to-face, it would take up three classrooms, three sections of nine children each.”

That would mean spreading students out across multiple classrooms. Students would then have to alternate face-to-face time, since schools don’t have the classroom space, Koller said.

“What does virtual look like if you’re face-to-face sometimes, and virtual sometimes?” Koller said. “Right now, we need to ask the question, but we don’t necessarily have the answer.”

But no matter what route the district picks, there will be challenges.

If students return to 100% face-to-face classes in the fall, the biggest concern for Jim Schmitt, executive director of teaching and learning, is their social and emotional state.

“By that time it’ll have been nearly six months before students have been part of organized schooling as we’ve known it up until March 16,” Schmitt said. “We’ve learned that online learning, over the last few months, is not as efficient as face-to-face learning. We recognize there will be learning gaps when our students come back with us.”

An all-virtual fall semester would mean not having to worry about socially distancing students in classrooms and school buses — but “the biggest issue we’d want to solve is sustainability for families,” Koller said.

For many families, there are challenges with both approaches that involve some degree of online schooling, said schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck at a Monday meeting of the board. Some families don’t have reliable internet access. Others don’t have enough devices in their homes for multiple children and parents working from home. Special education, bilingual and homeless students also could bump into trouble learning via a computer.

“We know families are stressed right now, trying to be the primary supporter of learning in the home,” Schmitt said. “… It’s extremely inefficient, in terms of instruction, in a virtual environment. We’d have to look at the most critical things to accomplish in the amount of time we’d be in a 100% virtual environment.”

The district won’t have several months to make a decision. It would likely need to have some direction by July 1 to purchase new technology in time, Schmitt said. Most teachers will be gone between early June and late August, meaning they wouldn’t be able to help build a virtual or hybrid model of instruction during much of the summer.

“There is a persistent uncertainty that goes on as this closure progresses, and also as we start the reopening of the state,” Hardebeck said. “For many of (our teachers) this is a new and unpredictable virtual world.”

Financial impact

The task force does not yet have “solid numbers” of what the three options would cost for the district, said Abby Johnson, executive director of business services.

But if the state decides to trim funding for schools to address the economic fallout of the virus, it could mean a multimillion-dollar deficit for the school district next year.

The district is anticipating an extra $1.9 million in funding for the 2020-21 school year from the federal CARES act — the $2 trillion economic stimulus package signed into law in March.

Under the state’s current biennial budget, the district was slated to get an additional $179 per pupil in 2020-21. Combined with the CARES funding, the district would probably sit at a $1.2 million surplus next school year.

But that extra $179 per pupil isn’t likely to come, Johnson said.

“At this point in time we don’t believe (it) will happen because of how the economy has been impacted related to this pandemic,” she said Monday.

The board heard two other, possible scenarios Monday night:

The district’s per-pupil funding could stay flat for 2020-21, which could result in a roughly $1.4 million deficit for the school district next year.

A second possibility is the state reducing aid by $200 per pupil. “We’ve heard a lot of different amounts thrown out there,” Johnson said. That would likely mean a $3.7 million deficit in the district’s budget next year.

Board members on Monday expressed concern about possible aid reductions from the state. 

“I’d like to express my resistance to believe that that option could happen,” board member Eric Torres said. Board President Tim Nordin said he looked at the hybrid approach “with a level of horror.”

There will be some relief, Johnson said. The district saved money this year on several items impacted by the virus: transportation costs, staff positions that weren’t filled, fewer substitute teachers hired and fewer sports and extracurricular fees.

“We don’t know what those exact benefits are going to be yet to the fund balance, and we don’t expect to have that information until mid to late August,” Johnson said. “ … We’re going to be conservative as we build our budget.”

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that two school board members on Monday reacted with concern to a financial scenario involving a $200 per-pupil reduction in state aid, not to a hybrid in-person/virtual approach to fall classes in the school district.

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