EAU CLAIRE — As summer beckons, Chippewa Valley school districts are ramping up face-to-face class days for student bodies, citing a majority of vaccinated teachers and relaxed federal guidelines.
In late April and early May, Eau Claire sixth through 12th grade students will return to four days of face-to-face classes each week, instead of two, the school district announced Tuesday.
Middle school students will shift to four days of in-person learning beginning April 26. High school students will make the same change starting May 3.
It means class sizes will expand, and schools won’t be able to keep 3 feet of physical distancing between students in all situations.
“Masking, ventilation, washing hands, cleaning protocols, quarantining, we’ll follow those as closely as possible as we’ve done all year, although we acknowledge we may not be able to adhere to 3 feet of distancing,” said Mike Johnson, Eau Claire schools superintendent.
School officials said in February that considering the size of the high schools, without social distancing, Eau Claire high school students come into close contact with far more people each day — which would complicate contact tracing and quarantining if a COVID-19 outbreak happened in the high schools.
Johnson said Tuesday that the district’s decision was influenced by lower community transmission and new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC in March updated its guidance for schools, saying that if students and staff wore masks, it advised 3 feet of physical distancing in schools, instead of 6.
“We learned of that CDC announcement, and heard from the Wisconsin DHS, DPI, Eau Claire City-County Health Department, three days before our spring break,” Johnson said. The district developed its plan for middle and high schools during spring break.
Johnson added that 91% of Eau Claire teachers have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Sixty-eight percent of teachers are fully vaccinated as of March 29, he said, and students 16 and older are now eligible for the vaccine themselves.
“The last five weeks of the semester for a high school student are extremely critical,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We also know our kids’ mental health is impacted positively by that increased social time with their peers.”
When the new classroom schedule goes into effect, high school and middle school students will attend classes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
All students will still learn online on Wednesdays to allow for school buildings to be cleaned.
Students and staff will still be required to wear masks and follow other health precautions.
The change won’t impact students learning all-virtually.
If families or students are uncomfortable with less physical distancing inside their school, they should contact their student’s school counselor or district administration to discuss an alternative, Johnson said. The options for those students will depend on the courses they’re assigned, Johnson said.
Younger students have already started increased classroom time each week.
The Eau Claire school board in February voted to shift kindergarten through fifth grade students to four days per week of face-to-face classes, instead of two. That change went into effect this week.
Chippewa Falls schools also ramp up classroom time
All schools in the Chippewa Falls school district returned to five-day in-person learning on Monday, marking the first full in-person school week the district has seen in over a year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hearing advice from the local health department and the CDC, Chippewa Falls schools Superintendent Jeff Holmes said it is time for students to have an aspect of their lives start to return to normal.
“It is time for us to move back to a five-day in-person week,” Holmes said. “Right now, based on everything I know from the Chippewa County Department of Public Health, I do believe it is time to get back to some sense of normalcy.
“I do commend our staff for functioning as they have been, even at four days per week. There are numerous districts throughout the state of Wisconsin who haven’t seen a student since last March.”
Susan Kern, executive director of curriculum and instruction, echoed Holmes’ statement and said a decrease in coronavirus numbers in Chippewa County was one of the main pieces of evidence behind the decision to return to five-day in-person learning.
“Due to the decrease in active cases and the small amount of students and staff in quarantine, we feel comfortable going back to the system we had prior to the pandemic,” Kern said.
Before this week, schools within the district practiced in-person learning Monday through Thursday and were remote on Friday, using asynchronous learning. Asynchronous Fridays involved students learning independently virtually and did not have a teacher instructing them in real time.
While state testing among students is likely to decrease due to the disconnect they’ve had with education over the past year, Holmes predicted district students will still perform strongly.
“I do believe we will see a regression on scores, but I don’t believe it will be to the extent you will see in other places,” Holmes said. “I know it’s not necessarily good for parents and others to hear, but I do believe when we go through times of crisis like this it will create a sense of resiliency in the community. We will wind up being stronger on the other side of this.”
Chippewa Falls school board President David Czech said while returning to a five-day in-person schedule is a solid step, he is still disappointed there is no clear end in sight for returning to a complete sense of pre-COVID normalcy.
“We have 85% of our staff vaccinated right now, we have herd immunity building, but what I’m getting at is when are we going to be able to take these stupid masks off?” Czech said. “When are we going to get back to normal? Because we aren’t out of it as long as we’re talking about variants controlling us and everything else surrounding it. We’ve got to get out of this.”