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Education
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Janesville, Milton schools pivot to virtual learning until January

The Milton School District will close schools to in-person education for the rest of the year after Thanksgiving break, but the Janesville School District will close only its high schools and middle schools, leaving elementary schools open.

The Milton and Janesville school boards made those decisions Wednesday in an effort to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19.

All Milton schools will pivot to virtual learning beginning Nov. 30 and stay virtual through Jan. 15. In Janesville, high school and middle school students will pivot to virtual learning for the same amount of time, while elementary students will continue learning in person.

Teachers are expected to teach from their classrooms, regardless of the delivery model.

“They (school board) worked really hard to try to strike a balance between the important safety issues right now as it relates to the pandemic, while also staying mindful of the fact that students need to have their educational, social, mental and emotional needs met,” Janesville Superintendent Steve Pophal said.

“There is a difference between a 6-year-old and a 16-year-old, and I think the board recognized that our littlest learners are our most vulnerable,” he said, “and … in spite of the risk to come to school every day, they need to have those needs tended to.”

Several Janesville School Board members voiced concerns about elementary students trying to learn virtually and the need for parents to find child care. Because no changes were made, the board did not vote on the elementary schools plan.

Officials from both districts said they hope the decisions will help slow the spread of COVID-19, which is advancing across Rock County. The decisions are consistent with guidance released by the Rock County Public Health Department on Monday.

The school board votes came one day after some Rock County school boards made similar decisions and two rejected the county’s guidance. The Edgerton and Clinton school districts will pivot to virtual education, while the Evansville and Parkview districts will not.

The county health department recommended Monday that school districts should pivot to virtual learning through the holidays.

Health officials expressed concern about students and staff traveling to see people they don’t live with and then exposing other students or staff members when they return. That coupled with rising COVID-19 numbers is a dangerous combination, they said.

Hospitals are at maximum capacity based on available beds and staff, according to documents from county epidemiologist Nick Zupan.

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise, Janesville and Milton school board members thought it was the right time to switch to in-person education.

Special-education students can continue learning in person if their care teams deem it necessary, officials said.

Switching the Janesville high schools to virtual learning passed on an 8-1 vote. Board member Dale Thompson opposed it because he wanted an A/B in-person schedule.

The middle school pivot passed on a 5-4 vote, with Steve Huth, Michelle Haworth, Jim Millard and Thompson opposing. Opponents argued students might not be able to handle the responsibilities and juggling that virtual learning requires.

The Janesville district currently has 24 positive cases among students and 14 among staff, according to its COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard shows 450 students and 91 staff members were quarantining as of Tuesday.

Data presented at the meeting shows 227 staff members have requested or required COVID-19-related leave since August, including quarantine time. Of the 227 requests, 168 of them were received in November.

Forty-nine students tested positive for the virus in September and October combined. So far, November has had 73 positive cases.

Other data shows Janesville schools are not able to fill teacher absences with substitute teachers. From Nov. 2-13, the district reported 884 teacher absences, and just 335 of them were covered.

The board received more than 30 public comments, and three people spoke in person at the meeting.

Dave Groth, president of the Janesville Education Association, said teachers support a pivot to virtual learning.

Janesville considered switching all in-person middle school and elementary students to an A/B system, in which students would learn virtually on Mondays and alternate days at school for the rest of the week.

“Do you want to be kicked in the shin or hit in the stomach? Because that’s about what it boils down to,” Pophal told board members about the pivot options.

“There are no easy decisions here tonight. There’s not an obvious right or wrong,” he said before the votes.

Board member Cathy Myers teaches both in-person and virtual classes in Illinois in a blended schedule. She argued for virtual learning instead of an A/B schedule, saying that it is not ideal and health is more important in this situation.

“I think my in-person kids are doing better than my remote kids, but this year is a year of trade-offs and sacrifices,” she said. “… And I don’t want to sacrifice anybody’s education, but I don’t want to put their families at risk. I think we did in August what community members wanted. I think it was the right decision at that moment, but I think the data is so different now.”

Milton School Board officials approved a pivot to virtual learning on a 7-0 vote Wednesday. As of Nov. 12, the Milton district’s COVID-19 dashboard shows 12 active cases among students and seven among staff. The numbers show 120 students and six staff members in quarantine.

Milton High School students returned to in-person learning this week after a pivot Oct. 29. Now, they will pivot again with the other schools.

“It balances our responsibilities to both limit the risk to the health and safety of our students, staff and community while continuing to provide high-quality education to our students,” Milton Superintendent Rich Dahman said.

“We’ve been in the virtual model before, and we believe we can do it well. We believe keeping students out of our school buildings will help us to prevent the wide spread of COVID-19 in our schools, which is spreading rapidly throughout our county.”

Other area school boards considered the same issue Tuesday.

Evansville

The Evansville district believes it is handling the virus capably. The school board agreed, voting 4-3 against the health department recommendation Tuesday because members believe the district’s positive case numbers are not the same as the county’s numbers.

The board heard two hours of comments from residents. Some board members and residents said Evansville is doing better than the rest of the county, but others weren’t convinced.

The district will move forward with its own reopening plan, and students will return to school after Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

Edgerton

The Edgerton School Board supported pivoting to virtual instruction from Nov. 30 through Jan. 15. The measure passed 7-2, and district officials will discuss logistics Monday.

Clinton

The Clinton School Board voted to follow the health department’s suggestions and will pivot from Nov. 30 to Jan. 15.

Parkview

Like Evansville, Parkview decided against a pivot after the holidays but is prepared to pivot if COVID-19 cases rise, Superintendent Steve Lutzke told the Beloit Daily News.

The district has seen few cases and staff is handling the pandemic well, Lutzke said.


Government
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Plan would convert Janesville's West Court Street to two lanes

JANESVILLE

The West Court Street commercial district is dangerous but could be improved if the city gets federal funding for improvements, city officials said in a virtual public forum on Monday night.

A stretch of Court Street from Waveland Road to Pearl Street saw 164 crashes, including two deaths, over five years, according to a 2018 study.

That rate was more than double the statewide average for urban arterial streets, according to the city.

Those crashes caused 20 injuries, one of them incapacitating.

The project still has a long way to go, with work on the 1.3-mile stretch beginning in 2025, if the funding comes through, said Ahna Bizjak, senior engineer for the city.

Improvements would turn the four-lane street between Waveland Road and Pearl Street to two through lanes separated by a center lane for left turns. The street also would have on-street bike lanes on either side.

High-visibility crosswalks would be installed, and the city is considering three mid-block pedestrian crossings, Bizjak said.

Other changes would improve traffic signals at the Court Street intersections with Crosby Avenue, Arch Street and Pearl Street.

The Pearl and Arch street intersections would get countdown timers for pedestrians. All three intersections would get left-turn lanes and high-visibility crosswalks, among other improvements.

John Campbell, a traffic engineer from Traffic Analysis & Design, which conducted the study, said proposed improvements are projected to reduce crashes by 30%, or 100 fewer crashes in the 10 years after the work.

The city proposes improvements expected to reduce crashes, improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, and increase compliance with speed limits.

Campbell said the improvements would mean a reduced average travel time for the 1.3-mile stretch of only 16 seconds, from 211 seconds for the current four-lane setup to 227 seconds with the proposed “safety conversion” by 2043, when traffic volume would be greater.

City officials have applied for federal aid to help pay for the projects. The improved signals are expected to cost about $1.8 million, with the federal grant picking up $1.6 million of that cost.

The reconfiguration of the street would cost $2.2 million, with the federal government picking up $1.87 million.

Few people watched the presentation Wednesday night, and only one had a question, about whether the city would account for traffic changes affecting residents as Court Street traffic continued to the east.

Bizjak replied that the city would have to comply with all safety features outlined in the federal grant application.


Obituaries and death notices for Nov. 19, 2020

Dorothy E. (Lukas) Kurtz

Susan K. Polky

Kenneth F. Schmeling

Barbara J. Secord

Peighton A. Smiley

Doris Schindel Zahn


Government
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No recount for Rock County

JANESVILLE

Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson rested easier Wednesday after finding out no recount of the presidential election would take place in the county.

Tollefson and her staff listened to angry phone calls in recent days from people who were wrongly led to believe the county had gotten the results wrong.

At the same time, Tollefson had to prepare for a recount in case one was requested.

Asked if those who had spread the false information should apologize, Tollefson replied, “That would be nice.”

She had not heard any apologies as of midday Wednesday, but she was receiving calls of support after The Gazette reported sheriff’s deputies had increased security for her and her staff in the wake of the angry calls.

President Donald Trump’s campaign filed for recounts of Milwaukee and Dane counties on Wednesday morning, but Tollefson noted the deadline was 5 p.m. to file for recounts, and she said anything could happen.

Nothing did.

Trump supporters, including presidential son Eric Trump, had accused Rock County of a mistake in its election night reporting. News reporters checked and found no problem.

“A recount would’ve proved we did it right, but I don’t like putting people’s health in jeopardy just to prove we did it right, when we know we did it right,” Tollefson said. “That’s my biggest concern about a recount, (the potential for) spreading COVID to everybody.”

Tollefson sees the fact that no recount was requested here as another confirmation that the election night glitch was what she has said it was, a reporting error by the Associated Press, which for a short time appeared to give Joe Biden’s votes to Trump and Trump’s to Biden.

The final tallies for the main presidential candidates were 46,658 for Joe Biden/Kamala Harris and 37,138 for Trump/Mike Pence. The Libertarian slate got 1,094 votes. Other candidates totaled 472 votes.

The county board of canvassers added nine votes for Biden and five for Trump, Tollefson said. Those votes came from provisional ballots and for ballots on which people wrote in the candidates’ names rather than filling in the oval next to their names.

Tollefson spent hours this week preparing for a possible recount, including getting advice from the county health department on best practices to avoid coronavirus infections.

The law allows 13 days to complete a recount, and Tollefson was going to make Thanksgiving a day off, so she wanted to have everything in order, she said.

Anthony Wahl 

A small group of President Donald Trump supporters rally in downtown Janesville on Wednesday.

The county set a record Nov. 3 with 85,627 votes cast. A recount was held here in 2016, but the ballots then totaled just 76,851, Tollefson said.

The 2016 recount took 10 days, and this time, the process would have taken more time because of the record deluge of absentee ballots, which take longer to check because the ballot envelopes must be checked as well as the ballots.

Tollefson’s recount preparations included things for COVID-19 that weren’t needed in the 2016 recount. Those included renting a big room so recounters could space out, cameras to allow the public to view the process without entering the building, protective gear, tables and chairs.

Tollefson also got quotes for costs of stationing law enforcement at the recount site, and she lined up workers, mostly experienced pollworkers from around the county, who are familiar with the paperwork.

Even food for the staff would have been more expensive. Buffet-style serving could have spread the virus, so box lunches were planned, and those cost slightly more, Tollefson said.

Tollefson and her staff fielded phone calls over the past week from people who had heard the incorrect information and demanded the vote totals be changed. After trying to explain to them what happened, she doesn’t believe a recount would have changed many minds.

“It’s almost that they have blinders on and they … don’t want to hear or understand how it works,” Tollefson said.

Eleven adults and two children with Trump flags demonstrated in downtown Janesville on Wednesday afternoon. Some carried signs that said “Stop the steal,” a reference to the unfounded belief that votes were not counted fairly.

“Trump won. Get over it!” said one man who appeared to be the group leader but would not give his name.

“Every legal vote counts!” he also shouted.

The demonstrators in front of The Gazette building at the corner of Milwaukee Street and Parker Drive chanted, “Four more years!” for a short time.

The man said he was happy for the recount in Dane and Milwaukee counties but said more counties should be recounted.