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Amid Uncertainty, Schools Reopen

new Eau Claire superintendent talks about the frustration and hope created by the pandemic

Much like thousands of students and families in the Chippewa Valley – and around the country – Michael Johnson stepped into uncertainty when he began his new job as Eau Claire school district superintendent amid the pandemic.

“It’s my 28th year in education, but there are many times
where I feel like it’s my first day on the job.”
- Michael Johnson, Eau Claire Area School District superintendent

“It’s my 28th year in education, but there are many times whereI feel like it’s my first day on the job,” Johnson said of leading the district in this unprecedented time.
Johnson – who most recently was assistant superintendent of South Washington County Schools in the Twin Cities metro area – officially began July 1, replacing the retiring Mary Ann Hardebeck.

Shortly after Johnson began his job, the Eau Claire school board voted to pursue a hybrid model for the school year: Most students were split into cohorts and will attend school in person two days a week and virtually three days a week. Families could also choose completely virtual education, and about 18% of them did.

“We are not going to make everyone happy, but one thing we can do is make sure everyone has as much information as possible,” Johnson said. Here’s a condensed version of the conversation he had with Chippewa Valley Family:

Chippewa Valley Family: When the school board voted in July to pursue a hybrid approach to education for the 2020-21 school year, board President Tim Nordin noted there weren’t any options that made him happy. How have you and the rest of the administration tried to navigate these challenges?

Michael Johnson: What Dr. Nordin said I would have to agree with: There aren’t any great options. And the reason is because we all want to see our students in school, we want to see our staff work their magic with those students and interact with families in a variety of ways, and because of the pandemic we’re really not able to do so, we’re not able to do the things that we know as experts in the educational field are best for kids, and that’s what’s disappointing.

What led the administration to recommend the hybrid approach? There were parents who thought children should go back to school full time or study virtually full time. How was the middle path arrived at?

Although I was not included – since I officially started on July 1 – in the work of our task force, I did have some insight after I started, and I think this is in large part due to the relationship that the ECASD has with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. And in following those guidelines, and their recommendations, given the amount of students we have and the square footage we have, to keep our students and staff as safe as possible the hybrid model was really our best option.

When you talk to teachers or administrators or parents, what are the biggest concerns that you hear regarding COVID-19?

I have heard from plenty. I used to live in Eau Claire, and I graduated from the university. My wife had taught in the district 17 years ago. We moved to River Falls from Eau Claire, so we still have close connections – friends with kids in the school district. But what I hear from people my wife and I have known for 30 years who are still teaching in the system, is a variety of things. Obviously they’re concerned about safety, they’re concerned about the virus, they’re concerned about student mental health, they’re concerned about masks. …

We have many teachers that are just phenomenal educators, and I do hear from some of them, “You know what, this really frustrates us because we cannot deliver what we typically deliver to kids,” and that’s a frustration they have. But they’ve got wonderful questions, and even when they disagree with decisions that are made at the board level, or the administrative level, most people have done so very agreeably. We are not going to make everyone happy, but one thing we can do is make sure everyone has as much information as possible, and that’s our goal.

Considering the governor’s statewide order, you didn’t really have a choice about masking in school. How much leeway is there on mask use? What happens if the court or Legislature steps in and nullifies the governor’s order?

What we have been informed from our legal counsel is that the governor’s mandate is the minimum, and that districts and agencies can alter it how they like. In this community, did we receive some feedback that people did not want to wear masks? Absolutely we did. But we had far more in this community who felt that is was extremely important to make sure that masks were work at all times in buildings by our staff and students. And the governor’s order has said (until) Sept. 28 – well, what we’re discussing and what we’re placing in our rule or our procedures at the board level is that we will do this indefinitely.

How closely has the district looked at what other peer schools are doing, either similar-sized districts or neighboring districts?

We are different in our district because we don’t necessarily have the square footage that other schools may have. For example, our county schools – Fall Creek, Augusta, Altoona, Osseo-Fairchild – we all have slightly different models, but if class sizes are smaller at those other districts, they may be able to offer all-day programming for their students. We just don’t have that luxury, because of the size or our schools and our overall enrollment.

However, a lot of this is based on our health orders in our county. Our Big Rivers Conference schools are all somewhat different, because their orders are less restrictive, and so more students will be able to be in classes, for example.

If teachers or students are diagnosed with COVID-19, what will the process be?

The public and our families sometimes get a little frustrated with us because we lean on the Eau Claire City-County Health Department so heavily. The most qualified individuals to share that information are medical professionals, not educational professionals like us. We follow their protocols very closely. We take the direction from them.

If somebody is diagnosed with COVID, the City-County Health Department is notified by that person’s health care provider and then they contact us as a district and provide all the guidance and feedback on actions that we should take. For example, they’ll contact anyone deemed a close contact, or who had been potentially exposed, and they work with us to determine that contact information for anybody who was exposed or a close contact. ...

There could be situations (where schools would be closed) with COVID, however, we’re unsure right now what those metrics would be. We would anticipate that the Department of Health Services and our Department of Public Instruction would provide more guidance for us in the upcoming weeks.

We’re living in uncertain times. What comments can you offer to give us a little positivity about the school year?

We’ve got awfully dedicated teachers in this community. It’s a year unlike any other. It’s my 28th year in education, but there are many times whereI feel like it’s my first day on the job. ... But the silver lining of this is that we’ve worked very closely together over the past few months in this district. … We have over 250 people on our reopening schools task force. People want to help. They want to be part of the solution, and they want to ensure that our kids have the best possible start to a school year.

I think we all probably remember our first days of school, and I keep thinking about that one kindergartner who starts school, and this is their first day, and we’ve got to make that special for him or her. Regardless of wearing a mask or we’ve got far fewer kids in a classroom or recess may look a little different, or school lunch, but the important part is we want to make sure kids are safe and that they’re learning and they have a great environment to do those things. I really have so much faith in this community, and we’ve got outstanding teachers, families, students, and we’re going to do the best we can because we’re working on this together.

This was made by

Tom Giffey  author

Tom Giffey, managing editor of Volume One, has been an award-winning media professional in the Chippewa Valley for more than 20 years.