Pandemic protocols weren’t among the agenda items at Monday’s Milton School Board meeting, but the issue still arose during the public comment portion.
Dozens of people spoke about masking in the district’s schools, both in favor and against, during the Aug. 23 board meeting before the board ultimately voted to implement a universal masking policy for people inside school buildings.
Tracy Hannah, the only person who signed up to speak during the Monday meeting’s public comment segment, wanted the board to revisit the decision at every board meeting going forward and not just at the second meeting of each month as planned.
“As you’re well aware, this is a very important topic to parents, students and the community,” she said. Hannah added she has asked the district under what circumstances it might end the universal masking rule, such as if there is a particular vaccination rate or test positivity rate that officials are hoping to attain, but she said she had not received any response.
School Board President Michael Hoffman, who said public comments would be limited to topics on Monday’s meeting agenda, interrupted Hannah and said she was veering toward a topic that wasn’t listed.
The Milton School Board voted 4-3 to change the mask-optional policy it approved earlier in the summer to a universal masking policy that could be reviewed by the board on a monthly basis.
Masking and pandemic-related policies have led to heated debates and confrontations not just in Milton but across the country. Superintendent Rich Dahman said in an interview before Monday’s board meeting that “a large majority” of people who participated in the Aug. 23 meeting were respectful and conducted themselves properly but that there was a small number who “used that forum to try to interrupt the work of the board.”
Dahman said there were some people who chose to walk toward the area where board members were seated in an apparent attempt to intimidate them. One person was asked to leave the Aug. 23 meeting before the vote on masking and did so, he said.
“We certainly would hope that it wouldn’t become a case in the future where we would even have to ask people to leave,” Dahman said. “The expectation is that you have an opportunity to share your thoughts and to voice your opinion, but we need to respect a decision that the group makes.”
During Monday’s meeting, Dahman gave the board a preliminary number of enrolled 4-year-old kindergarten to 12th-grade students. He said 3,495 were enrolled in Milton schools “as of last week.” That would represent a slight increase from 2020’s enrollment. Enrollment figures play into the state’s formula for school funding.
The 2021-22 school year has started for Janesville and Milton schools, bringing more structure to many lives in the Rock County area.
Officials say hospital resources in the region are becoming strained, which could lead to patients having to travel further from home for health care, and some local providers are requiring employees to get vaccinated in line with government mandates.
Hospitals and health care facilities in 14 counties throughout southcentral Wisconsin are experiencing a high volume of inpatients in intensive care units, general medical floors and emergency departments. Stretched resources can lead to difficulties in receiving care close to home, according to a press release from the South Central Wisconsin Healthcare Emergency Readiness Coalition.
From July 28 to Sept. 1, the total number of COVID-19 hospitalizations increased four-fold in Wisconsin’s southcentral region. In that same time frame, there were 5.5 times the number of COVID-19 ICU hospitalizations. Many rural hospitals have no or limited ICU capability and are relying on the same limited ICU beds in larger cities, including Madison.
The high volume of inpatients includes COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, the news release said. COVID-19 infections requiring hospitalization are increasing at a similar rate to last winter’s surge. With students of all ages returning to classrooms, gatherings over the Labor Day holiday and colder weather soon driving people indoors, additional increases are expected, which could stretch resources further.
Beloit Health System President and CEO Tim McKevett said the health system is requiring vaccinations for its Illinois employees, per Gov. J.D. Pritzker’s order.
“We are evaluating the Biden administration’s executive order and its implications,” McKevett said. “If it’s mandated, we will require them. Currently we are not requiring vaccinations for Wisconsin-based employees.”
President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order requiring health care workers to get vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19.
Mercyhealth announced it will charge a fee to any employee who doesn’t get vaccinated. Its announcement Friday referenced a fee ranging from $60 to $265 a month depending on employee pay.
At this time, a determination has not been made regarding requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for all employees at Edgerton Hospital and Health Services as it waits for further direction from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. It expects to have an answer for employees within two weeks, according to marketing manager Sunny Bowditch.
There were 40 newly reported cases of COVID-19 in Janesville in the past week, according to municipal data released Monday. There were 32 new cases in Beloit, seven in Clinton, nine in Edgerton, four in Evansville, three in Milton and 12 in the remainder of the county.
There were 17,218 people in Rock County who recovered from COVID-19 and 528 active cases. There were 21 people hospitalized in the county as of Thursday, Sept. 9.
In Rock County, 61.7% of eligible people have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
As of Monday, the average new cases per day in Wisconsin for the past seven days has been 1,482. The seven-day average of deaths per day in the state has been 13, and the seven day average state positivity rate was 7.7%.
As of Sept. 7, the latest data available, there were 987 people hospitalized due to COVID-19 in Wisconsin, a number which is growing since it was 79 on July 11.
There were 3,050,518 people in Wisconsin who have completed the COVID-19 vaccine series, or 51.4% of the population, according to state data.
Trial proceedings began Monday for a Fort Atkinson man charged with arson and five counts of attempted first-degree intentional homicide in connection with a fire at a Janesville duplex in 2020.
Jacob Piper, 31, is accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at a duplex in the early-morning hours of May 28. Five people were in the building at the time of the fire and all escaped.
In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Jerry Urbik said the evidence would show that because of “some type of grudge” Piper had, five people in the duplex could have died in the fire resulting from the Molotov.
Witnesses Donald Shannon and Jennifer Moffett, Urbik said, gave similar accounts regarding the incident and the events leading up to it. Urbik said based on their statements, Piper was trying to pursue romantically a woman who was at the duplex but turned him down.
Upon having his advances rejected, Piper left the house the night of May 27, Urbik said. Moffett told an investigator that while she was with Shannon later that night, she heard the sound of someone at the front porch. When she looked to see who it was, she said Piper was holding a bottle with some sort of flame coming out of it.
Moffett said Piper threw the bottle, causing the duplex to catch fire.
Urbik said the prosecution would provide evidence showing the fire was caused by an accelerant, proving a Molotov cocktail or other type of firebomb was used. Urbik said Piper also gave inconsistent answers during questioning and suggested Piper tried to give a false alibi.
Defense attorney Mark Eisenberg objected to several of Urbik’s statements and during a recess for the jury, went so far as to say a mistrial should be declared because Urbik’s opening remarks could have tainted the jury. Judge Karl Hanson said those objections would be addressed in court today.
When the jury returned, Eisenberg laid out his defense for Piper succinctly.
“Jacob Piper did not throw a firebomb into that house,” he said, arguing the basis of the prosecution’s case relied on witness testimony that didn’t line up to form a singular narrative.
Eisenberg said both Moffett and Shannon gave conflicting stories and regularly changed details regarding where Piper was before the fire. Eisenberg tried to cast further doubt on Moffett’s story, claiming she could not have seen Piper from her bedroom window.
Eisenberg also said there were several flammable items on the porch when the fire broke out after a cookout at the residence the night of May 27.
After the opening statements, Urbik called the prosecution’s first witness, who saw the fire from his house on River Street. Christopher Colby said he had gotten up and was using the restroom when he heard a booming sound from down the street. When he looked to see what caused the noise, he said he saw the porch and front door of the Franklin Street duplex on fire.
Colby described the fire as “rolling” down the wooden stairs “like water,” then crawling up the building to the second floor. He said he called 911 and that the police arrived around five minutes later.
Assistant District Attorney Kyle Johnson asked about Colby’s experience in the Army and whether he had any experience with accelerants or fires. Colby said yes, which led to an objection from Eisenberg, who said the prosecution had not connected Colby’s Army experience with expertise in analyzing fires. Eisenberg also said not even the fire department could determine the cause of the explosion initially.
The judge ruled Colby’s testimony could include only his account of what happened during the fire that early morning.
Heidi Fairman, Colby’s mother, was next on the stand and gave a statement similar to her son’s. She too had been startled by the booming sound from down the street and saw the fire immediately, and then saw people jumping from the balcony shortly thereafter.
The trial will resume at 8:30 a.m. today, when more evidence is set to be presented and further testimony will be heard.
Scott V. Francis
Joel M. Goodsir
Renee Dawn Hamilton
Charles W. Mulder
George F. Rogers
Carol A. Vesely