EAU CLAIRE — After the Eau Claire school district announced last week it would move to all-virtual classes following Thanksgiving, the largest Wisconsin teachers union is calling on the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to set specific benchmarks for all Wisconsin schools to know when they can move to face-to-face classes.

“While there have been statewide restrictions, no comprehensive action has been prescribed for our schools,” said Ron Martin, a longtime Eau Claire eighth grade teacher and president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

At a Tuesday press briefing, Martin said 90% of teachers surveyed by WEAC said they were in favor of the DHS enforcing statewide gating criteria before returning to in-person classes.

A letter from WEAC to DHS last week said the agency was sending “a perilous mixed message with its position on schools.”

The DHS and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction have both put out recommendations for school districts, and in August DHS pointed districts to a risk assessment tool to decide how classes should look this fall.

But the agency has not issued an order — or mandated benchmarks — dictating when school districts should shut down in-person classes.

Instead, it’s left the final decision in the hands of individual school boards and officials.

In its letter last week, WEAC argued that DHS has the authority to close schools, and therefore can set benchmarks for closing and reopening.

“This lack of binding guidance has resulted in dangerously inconsistent approaches by local health departments and school districts and has led to confusion, unpredictability and discord in local communities,” WEAC said in the letter.

Schools in the Chippewa Valley have also taken varying approaches to reopening this fall. Some began holding in-person classes five days per week; other neighboring districts divided students into cohorts for two days of in-person classes each week.

The Eau Claire school district this fall created a transition plan for moving between face-to-face and virtual learning. But as of Oct. 5, the district’s public plan does not include specific case number benchmarks.

The Eau Claire district said it plans to consult with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and DHS when making a decision to move to virtual or in-person learning.

Last week the district announced it would move to all-virtual classes after Thanksgiving and at least through Dec. 8. That choice came not because of rising cases in the county, but rather that many teachers and staff were quarantined, making it difficult to staff schools, officials said Monday.

Last week, 95 staffers and 816 students were in quarantine, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. Fifteen staffers tested positive for the virus last week, as well as 42 students.

Local investigations

Eau Claire school district officials have said COVID-19 spread is not happening person-to-person within school buildings due to socially distanced classrooms and a face mask requirement.

Early national research seems to indicate that schools are not transmission hotspots if they use careful precautions and virus spread within the community is low.

Early data suggest that few outbreaks were reported in schools in early 2020, and when school outbreaks did happen, the virus was more likely to be introduced by adult staffers, the World Health Organization said in October.

But the WHO also emphasized that there is a “strong link” between the number of outbreaks and local transmission.

Preventative measures in schools are even more important in places with “widespread community transmission” of COVID-19, the organization said.

As of Wednesday, every county in Wisconsin except one is at “critically high” COVID-19 activity level, according to the DHS. (The lone holdout, Green County, is one step lower, at “very high” activity level).

In its letter, WEAC said of around 50 health departments in Wisconsin, more than half hadn’t developed any school-specific criteria for moving between in-person or virtual classes.

“Without this statewide approach, Wisconsin is sending a perilous message of hands-off when it comes to school,” Martin said Tuesday. “ ... As long as unmasked high school football players are seen huddling and high-fiving together on the evening news, citizens will not take this pandemic seriously.”

Across Wisconsin, health departments have done 972 investigations into COVID-19 outbreaks at educational facilities, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Of those 972 investigations, 744 are still active as of Wednesday. (The DHS defines two or more cases of COVID-19 in a single facility as an outbreak.)

Fourteen of those investigations at educational facilities have been in Eau Claire County. Nine of the 14 are still active investigations.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.