By Eric Lindquist, Leader-Telegram

EAU CLAIRE — Back to school will carry a whole new meaning this fall.

With new rules requiring face masks, enforcing social distancing and limiting days of in-person schooling amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an old tradition will look significantly different than in past years.

Yet even with the pandemic that shut down in-person schooling two months early this spring still going strong, many students across the state will be returning to the classroom next week.

“There will be more stress for sure,” said Northstar Middle School principal Tim Skutley. “Our goal is we want to support and welcome kids back to school and reacclimate them to our building, a place they haven’t been for about 5½ months. We’ll start out slow and then move forward with offering them a great education in a way that has new routines and safety precautions in place.”

While heading back to school is always an adjustment for students after summers off, experts say the return to early-morning alarms, sitting at desks and listening to teachers could be more difficult than usual for some students after an extended absence of such routines and with a plethora of new procedures in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s time to bring those old habits back and move forward together,” Skutley said.

Skutley and Mayo Clinic pediatrician Angela Mattke said parents can play an important role in easing the anxiety students are likely to feel about returning to school in a changed climate filled with extra sanitizing and safety requirements.

It’s important for parents to be positive about the differences and to reinforce why they are important, Mattke said.

Parents can do that both by encouraging their children to follow the now familiar protocols — wearing masks, staying at least 6 feet away from others, washing or sanitizing hands frequently and not touching your face — and leading by example, she said.

“You can prepare them to be safe and to practice safety measures to help keep others safe by role modeling positive behaviors,” Mattke said.

It also will be more important than ever for parents to monitor the health of their children and keep them home when they show signs of sickness during the pandemic, Skutley and Mattke said.

“We ask people to err on the side of caution,” Skutley said, expressing confidence that online tools will enable teachers to get kids who miss class time caught up. “When in doubt, please stay home and stay well.”

COVID-19 symptoms include cough, fever, sore throat, headache, body or muscle aches, chills, fatigue, difficulty breathing, vomiting and new loss of taste or smell.

While in the past parents often sent students to school with minor symptoms, Mattke stressed that’s not advisable with coronavirus present in communities.

“This is different,” she said. “This virus is so contagious.”

In Wisconsin, more than 73,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past six months, with half of those cases occurring in the past seven weeks. The virus had led to 5,684 hospitalizations and 1,111 deaths in Wisconsin as of Thursday, according to the state Department of Health Services.

People should take the threat seriously even though research has shown that children who test positive for COVID-19 tend to get less sick than adults, Mattke said, adding that some juveniles get seriously ill and they also can transmit the virus even if they are asymptomatic.

DHS statistics indicate that children 9 and younger account for 3% of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 cases and 2% of virus-related hospitalizations, while those from age 10 through 19 make up 10% of cases and 1% of hospitalizations. No COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the state among individuals under 20.

While at school, students will notice many changes to routines and movement patterns intended to limit the size of gatherings and number of contacts among students and staff.

At Northstar, for instance, about 240 students will attend in-person classes on Monday and Tuesday, while a similar-sized but different cohort of students will attend on Thursday and Friday. Those students will be divided into groups of about 48, with the goal being to limit their interactions to only that group. Classes will be further reduced to 12 to 15 students to meet physical distancing limitations recommended by the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

Lunch sessions and times for moving between classes also will be divided into smaller-than-usual groups and staggered to limit potential virus exposure, Skutley said.

Likewise, the traditional orientation gathering of all students to introduce administrators and counselors will be replaced by a PowerPoint presentation.

As students navigate their school’s version of the new normal, Mattke and Skutley advised parents to keep the lines of communication open by regularly asking their children about school and about any concerns or questions they might have.

Discussions should be pretty basic with young children but can get more in depth with older students, Mattke said, noting that in this unusual time parents may not always be able to answer questions that come their way.

“It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know, but we’ll work through it together,’ “ she said.

Skutley also encouraged parents to take an active role in helping students manage their time and stay on top of responsibilities that are part of any virtual aspects of their schooling.

Through it all, Skutley is hopeful students still will feel comfortable seeking support from school employees.

“We’re all in this together,” he said, “and I hope students look at teachers and staff as people who want to help them be successful as we start down this new road.”

Contact: 715-833-9209, eric.lindquist@ecpc.com, @ealscoop on Twitter