As parents in the Janesville School District weigh how to send their children back to school this fall, teachers are also preparing for an academic year unlike any other.
Some teachers are worried about a number of unknowns surrounding their return to work, Janesville Education Association President Dave Groth said.
“They’re concerned about safety,” he said.
“I think we (teachers) mirror the community. I think some of the teachers are just very afraid they’re going to catch it or their kids will catch it,” he said. “Others are not as afraid, but I think we all understand that when you put that many people together, that’s going to be really hard to keep everyone safe if the disease is prevalent in the community. So we’re going to have to work really hard.”
Groth said he speaks with Superintendent Steve Pophal regularly about the district’s reopening procedures. He appreciates the measures the district has in place but worries the district doesn’t have enough time to plan for every possible scenario or need.
“A lot of the teachers are worried about their class and how that’s going to work. There’s just so many things to think about with masks and how many students come in contact with other students. As much as we need to think about that stuff, I’m thinking about the bigger stuff like day care, buses, staffing. There’s just a lot of stuff that needs to be worked out,” he said.
On top of teaching the standard curriculum, teachers will have to educate younger students about the importance of washing hands, wearing face masks and physical distancing, Groth said.
Some teachers are also concerned about how face masks might affect the learning environment. While most teachers agree that they should be used, there are concerns over missing facial cues and making up for that, Groth said.
“Children and teachers gain a lot by the expressions on your face,” Groth said. “Not being able to see these facial expressions because of masks that hide whether they get a topic or welcoming kids, it could be different and tough this year. Not being able to get a good smile across to kids is going to be hard.”
Groth said he believes the district will provide teachers with protective equipment, and its willingness to allow at-risk teachers to work at ARISE Virtual Academy this fall makes a positive difference in protecting staff, he said.
When the district receives its enrollment numbers for virtual, blended and completely in-person learning at the end of July, Groth said he will work with Pophal and district leaders to finalize staffing plans. The district plans to pay teachers their full salaries, a gesture teachers appreciated, Groth said.
Differences in return-to-school plans across the state could lead to other problems for those teachers who are also parents of school-aged kids, he said.
The Madison Metropolitan School District, for instance, is expected to start the school year completely online. For teachers who work in Janesville and have children attending school in Madison, finding child care during the day could pose a problem.
Groth said teachers are also concerned about the possibility of having to go fully online and what that might mean for their child care arrangements. Some day cares need registration up to a year in advance, and other child care centers are closed or limiting the number of enrolled children because of the pandemic, he said.
“I have heard concern over day cares and after-school care because we’re stretched thin,” Groth said. “If we go virtual for a few months, how do parents, teachers and day cares adjust to that snap of a finger if we decide when to turn on and off (in-person) school?”
He said as the virus changes and the situation develops over the next several weeks, the district needs to be prepared and willing to adapt.
“My biggest concern is that COVID is coming back. I think everyone was ready for it to die off and prepare for flu season, but now it seems to be as prevalent today as it was when we closed school earlier than usual,” he said.
As other districts across the state and country return to the classroom before Janesville, Groth said he hopes the district will pay attention to how other districts manage reopening schools. He pointed to some European school systems that have limited outbreaks by reducing class sizes.
Blackhawk Technical College is expecting a 10% drop in enrollment for the 2020-21 school year but a bump in the years afterward as the coronavirus continues to hobble the job market and economy.
When the Great Recession hit the U.S. and the General Motors assembly plant ended production in the late 2000s, the college saw a large influx of newly unemployed students looking for new careers.
College President Tracy Pierner isn’t expecting a similar enrollment boom with COVID-19.
“Generally speaking for technical colleges, enrollment patterns exactly match unemployment rates,” he said. “As unemployment goes up, our enrollment goes up. We serve a broader spectrum of students; therefore, people look to us for retraining to get back into the workforce when unemployment hits.”
Unemployment has risen during the pandemic, but the virus has caused uncertainty about health and safety. BTC’s enrollment is expected to drop this year but then rise about 10% higher than a typical school year, according to a preliminary data analysis done by the college.
“We do believe there will be an increase in the midterm,” Pierner said. “Long term really depends on the economy and what happens with a vaccine and the future of COVID.
“It isn’t going to be anything like the GM days because our economy isn’t going to go into the tank like it did during those days,” he said. “There isn’t any single player around in our area that would have that type of impact, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a 10% incline on the backside of this, too.”
Enrollment in online classes is up 20%, Pierner said. He thinks the length of the pandemic will dictate the eventual need for retraining workers.
Prior to COVID-19, the college’s enrollment was on the rise despite a decrease in area unemployment. That was thanks to new programs and efforts to connect students with employers.
The biggest factor in the current enrollment drop isn’t new students, Pierner said; it’s current students withdrawing from school because they’re suffering financially.
“We had a larger than normal withdrawal rate, which means people were hit hard, probably losing their jobs, and now they’re sitting on the sidelines. So we’re hoping they get back into the game,” Pierner said.
Pierner thinks the pandemic could make technical colleges more attractive to traditional students who normally would consider a four-year university.
For 21-year-old Madison Schultz of Janesville, BTC provides an opportunity to continue learning even though her university is closed for the summer.
Schultz is studying biomedical science pre-medicine at Concordia University in Milwaukee, with hopes of becoming a nurse practitioner. Being able to take a certified nursing assistant course at BTC this summer has helped her stay on track.
“I was not able to take any classes up at school in Milwaukee because everything is closed down, and this way I could stay home and live with my parents,” she said.
She hopes to get a job as a CNA when she returns to Concordia this fall. She said BTC’s health care courses are important during the pandemic.
“Just because there is a pandemic doesn’t mean that people don’t need care,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that they have COVID and they need care, it means people are still having heart attacks and strokes. There’s a million reasons why we still need people fighting to be in health care.”
Schultz likely is not alone. Pierner said it might make more sense financially for a college freshman to take classes at BTC than to travel to a four-year university to take online classes.
If enrollment does rise after this year, as expected, the college will be ready, Pierner said.
“It’s about working intimately with our business sector to make sure we understand their needs and then pivoting and delivering what they need in terms of the education and training, but doing it in a way that allows for high quality but also the safety of our students,” he said.
For Rachel Kravitz, the word “closure” doesn’t fully capture what her group of search-and-rescue dogs does for grieving families.
The volunteer nonprofit group Wisconsin K9 SOS responds for free across the state and sometimes to surrounding states and, among other things, helps authorities search for living or dead people.
The group has worked in the Janesville area on two recent cases: the searches for the bodies of Madison Billups, 9, and Johnny D. Hood.
“What we do when we return a family member back to their loved ones is allow them to move on to the next part of their grieving and recovery from their loss,” Kravitz, the group’s president, said in a phone interview. “And we find it a great honor to be able to do that for families.”
A body was found in a wooded area near Janesville on Saturday as authorities searched for a missing man.
Kravitz said they respond to a lot of drownings this time of year, as the dogs are able to smell for bodies in water as well as under ice in colder seasons. The group also helps find people with dementia or autism who go missing.
She said the group has about a dozen dogs and 14 members across the state.
K9 SOS trains its own dogs, she said. When consulting with outside experts, members either travel for trainings or bring someone to Wisconsin.
Some members buy their dogs from breeders, while others have dogs that are donated. Others might adopt rescued dogs and train them, she said.
The breeds they’re working with now include German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, golden retrievers, border collies and black Labradors.
The group has two dogs that were on a career track to be service dogs, but they were “a little too exuberant for that line of work,” Kravitz said with a slight laugh.
One of those dogs is training to work in human remains detection.
Kravitz said most members train multiple times per week, and when they train depends on whether they’re working full time or retired.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected how often members can train as a group, but Kravitz said members continue to train on their own.
To train the dogs, the group uses human cadavers and follows standard practices for obtaining, handling and storing them, Kravitz said. It’s important to train with human bodies so the dogs can differentiate between those scents and that of a dead raccoon or deer, for example.
The group pays for its own gear, too, on top of paying for seminars and certifications, she said.
Kravitz has been involved with K9 SOS for 15 years but in search-and-rescue more broadly for 19 years.
Law enforcement or other emergency services can request help from K9 SOS, but Kravitz said members can respond with a larger network of search groups—known as Search Teams of Wisconsin, or STOW—when needed. That makes the process more seamless.
Among their services are ground searches and mounted searches on horseback.
“If you need everyone, you get everyone and all their resources,” she said.
In the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, a shortage of testing supplies and staff at laboratories left Wisconsin and other states struggling to quickly identify infections and isolate contagious people.
Four months after Gov. Tony Evers declared the outbreak a public health emergency, the state has dramatically expanded its testing capacity. But experts say too few Wisconsinites are showing up—potentially thwarting efforts to neutralize a virus that killed at least 844 people in the state as of Sunday.
Wisconsin has 83 labs that can perform more than 24,000 total tests each day, according to data that public, private and commercial labs voluntarily report to the state Department of Health Services. That is about seven times the capacity reported April 1. Twenty-four additional labs are “planning to test.”
But Wisconsin typically uses less than half of its reported capacity. DHS reports a 7-day average of roughly 11,700 test results per day, although that number topped 13,000 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Even Wisconsin’s June 3 record of 16,933 test results sits below the 19,000 needed to pursue a strategy to prevent spreading—or the 70,000 needed to suppress the outbreak, according to a Harvard Global Health Institute analysis conducted last month for NPR.
Wisconsin was among 32 states falling short of the mitigation criteria, according to the study.
DHS officials urge testing for people who have COVID-19 symptoms—including a cough, shortness of breath, fever and chills—or suspect they were exposed to the virus. Testing is likely lagging because many prime candidates still aren’t showing up, said Ajay Sethi, a professor at UW-Madison and director of its Master of Public Health program.
“The only way you will know whether or not that you have COVID is to get a test,” he said. “It’s very important to make sure that when somebody recognizes that they’re indicated for a test, they need to go get a test.”
Calls for more participation come as known virus cases are surging across the state and country. Wisconsin set daily records for confirmed cases four times since July 9, nearing 1,000 cases on some days, DHS data shows.
“These numbers are not the result of more testing,” DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said Tuesday on a media call. “These numbers are the result of significant community spread here in Wisconsin.”
Chuck Warzecha, deputy administrator of DHS’ Division of Public Health, called testing volume a key piece of a complicated puzzle. Harvard’s recommendations are useful for mapping out capacity needs as the crisis persists, Warzecha said, but conducting “the right testing” is even more important.
That means targeting high-risk populations, communities with active outbreaks and symptomatic people—along with their close contacts. The strategy includes scrutinizing nursing homes, where DHS has investigated 151 outbreaks of at least one coronavirus case. The Evers administration early in the pandemic also targeted testing outreach to African American, Latino and tribal populations.
“It would be great if everyone knew their infection status, and then we could all know when to stay home and not to expose others,” Warzecha said. “Without that, we just have to be a lot more strategic about how we use the testing that we have so that we can find those most at risk, isolate the virus quickly and prevent the spread.”
Wisconsin could face additional challenges as the virus keeps spreading nationally—such as a shortage of testing materials. But states should not expect much help from President Donald Trump’s administration, which has played a hands-off role in responding to the pandemic, said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
“One of the problems of this whole national approach that affects everyone is the fact that it has been—each group is supposed to make its own decision,” he said.
The Evers administration has promoted testing statewide, even deploying nearly 600 Wisconsin National Guard members to help collect specimens at certain sites. But officials cannot force anyone to get tested, and some people might be avoiding the experience because they misunderstand the virus’s risks, Sethi said.
“I think it’s important that we create an incentive and let people understand that if you are infected, testing is the only way to know whether that’s the case,” he said.
Wisconsin’s reported surplus capacity, if accurate, bucks a national trend, Emanuel said.
California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Colorado have turned people away or even shuttered some overwhelmed testing sites. The main culprit for the problem: an overwhelmed supply chain for such materials as nasal swabs and reagents—the chemicals needed to perform the tests. The supply crunch has meant long waits for results, hobbling efforts to trace contacts and isolate people who test positive.
Results become “literally worthless” if not reported within 10 days, Emanuel said.
Wisconsin is not immune to regional testing hiccups, even with its reported capacity cushion.
Some test-seekers in Milwaukee and Madison reported hourslong waits, according to media reports. In Iron River, 142 test samples at a National Guard site were thrown away after being damaged while sitting in a hot vehicle. And some clinical labs could test more if not for a shortage of chemical reagents, Warzecha said.
The state resolved most early testing issues, Warzecha said, acknowledging the need for further improvements. One upgrade this month: an online registration tool at National Guard testing sites that aims to reduce wait times.
Wisconsin is evolving its strategies as some experts propose new ways to boost efficiency.
Emanuel in mid-April joined Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer in calling for a 10-week national strategy to ramp up testing to millions per day.
“It should leverage the thousands of research laboratories at U.S. universities, medical schools, and health-care systems,” the duo wrote for The Atlantic. Nearly three months later, the United States is performing fewer than 800,000 daily tests, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project.
Emanuel and Romer also described pool testing—combining samples from several individuals and testing them together—as a “promising pathway” to speed processing and conserve supplies.
“If a pooled sample tests negative, everyone in the pool is negative. If it is positive, the members of the pool can be tested individually,” the experts wrote. Other researchers have touted the method’s potential.
Wisconsin has considered pooling tests, Warzecha said. The approach could prove effective in communities with lower virus rates, he noted. But pooling could waste time and supplies in COVID-19 hotspots, requiring more people to wait for a second test, he added.
In an interview Tuesday, Emanuel called pooling “a way to squeak through” while the Trump administration offers little guidance or coordination to state and local public health leaders.
“A country like ours, we should be able to do other things,” Emanuel said. “We should have been spending the last four months beefing up the supply chain, making sure we had enough machines, inducing the large test companies to actually put in the capacity.”
Warzecha said his teammates are learning as much from state and local health departments as they are from the federal government.
“Everyone is doing the best that they can,” he said.
But more testing alone can’t thwart the virus. Other behaviors matter, Warzecha added.
“If people are opening up too quickly and people aren’t wearing masks when they’re in public and they’re spending too much time in congregate settings,” Warzecha said, “then it really isn’t going to be enough testing to help you stop the outbreak.”
This story comes from a partnership of Wisconsin Watch and WPR. Bram Sable-Smith is WPR’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org), which collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
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