For Elijah Buroker, a soon-to-be 5-year-old from Janesville, the closure of schools in spring proved to be a major setback.
Elijah has autism and doesn’t talk. He also struggles with two rare congenital disorders and vision problems because his left optic nerve never fully formed.
His mother, Renae Bliss, said Elijah was making good progress in the Janesville School District’s early childhood program at Jefferson Elementary School. Then the pandemic forced the city’s schools to close.
Bliss called what happened next a “serious six months of regression.”
“The frustrating part was because he was getting a full year last year of his speech, occupational, physical and vision therapy, he was starting to make a lot of progress,” she said. “He was starting to sign; his confidence and his willingness to kind of mix and mingle and play with other kids was increasing.
“Then when spring hit and everything closed down, he was left with nothing.”
Bliss said her son was not given any educational materials to continue learning, and she felt as if special-needs students had been forgotten. She tuned in to the children’s TV show “Blue’s Clues” and tried to teach Elijah using the methods she knew, but she said it was difficult because she isn’t a trained teacher.
Her oldest son, Jalen, also needs additional help. He struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
Until a week ago, Jalen was going to Craig High School. He now attends Rock River Charter School, a Janesville charter school, because it has a more consistent schedule and continues to offer in-person learning.
Jalen completes online lessons with in-person help from teachers at the school.
Kim Peerenboom, the district’s director of pupil services, told The Gazette earlier this month that the district has made changes to special education this year for the roughly 1,200 students in the program.
“We have had to make some programming changes for students who are medically fragile and/or if they are living with a family member who was medically fragile to ensure that their education continues,” she said.
“Obviously face-to-face cannot be replicated through a distance-learning model, so the level of service sometimes looks a little different, especially depending on the severity of the needs of the student, but we’ve been handling all of those on an individual basis.”
To teach special-education students about masks and social distancing, teachers use reminders, nonverbal queues and stories to help children understand the new rules under COVID-19, Peerenboom said.
No special-education student has been punished for not wearing a mask. Some students are choosing face shields as a more comfortable option.
Peerenboom said a reduction in face-to-face services has been the top concern for parents of students with special needs. She said district officials have worked with families on ways that students can still come to school buildings and get help if distance learning is not an option.
Bliss spoke about her concerns at the Oct. 13 school board meeting. She asked that special-education students be allowed to continue reporting to school even if a building closes and that they have educational plans in place to keep them from falling behind.
“I am absolutely terrified” of another closure, she told The Gazette after the meeting.
Bliss said she has heard from Milwaukee parents that children in special education are struggling with the district’s virtual learning setup. When schools close, a lot of clinics that offer speech and occupational therapy close, too, she said.
“They can’t watch a video,” Bliss said, referring to special-needs students. “They can’t do a webinar. A lot of parents are having to work from home, but we’re not certified physical therapists, even though we’re special-needs parents.
“So I look at it not just for myself and seeing Elijah’s progress and his confidence that has grown. It’s not even so much about his progress, it’s his confidence in trying different things and wanting to interact with the other kids and things like that. That also regresses when the schools close.”
Jefferson Elementary School’s announcement that it would switch to virtual learning Oct. 21 through the end of the month exacerbated Bliss’ fears.
However, last Friday, she got word from Jefferson’s special education staff that Elijah could continue to receive therapy and learn at school even if the buildings are closed because of COVID-19 staffing problems.
Bliss felt relieved and grateful.
“He’s not potty trained or anything like that,” she said. “He’s behind on literally everything, so this year has been nice because … he’s making decent progress just six weeks into the school year.
“I was relieved because if the teachers go, he can go, but it’s also as a parent a great feeling to know that somebody heard me and my concerns and he can receive the help he needs,” Bliss said.
She also learned Elijah soon will be moved from the early childhood program to P4J, the district’s 4-year-old kindergarten program. That likely means he’ll learn in person with more children when Jefferson reopens.
Elijah is exempt from the mask mandate. He did not wear a mask in his old classroom because he and another student could socially distance themselves, and his disability makes it difficult for him to wear one anyway.
That’s not Elijah’s only difficulty amid COVID-19. For the first few weeks of school, he wouldn’t take the hand of a teacher he knows because he didn’t recognize her with her mask on.
Elijah’s teacher had started with a face shield so students could get used to seeing her before she switched to a mask, Bliss said.
Now, another new experience looms with P4J. Bliss said she is thankful her son will receive help even if Jefferson closes again.
“He wasn’t receiving the help that he needed, and now he will. One of my biggest fears would be for him to be an 8-year-old first-grader,” she said. “If he struggles, he struggles. But I didn’t want it to be because the school district wouldn’t work for him.”
Local officials are preparing just in case voters encounter harassment, intimidation or people carrying guns at the polls Tuesday.
People with guns, sometimes in military garb, have become a regular occurrence at political events in the area in recent years.
Those carrying them have said they are just exercising their Second Amendment rights or that they are providing security.
But some find the presence of a gun while they are waiting to vote intimidating.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul this week issued a warning about disrupting elections, including “displaying firearms in an intimidating or threatening manner in or near a polling place.”
The Wisconsin Elections Commission last week issued a memo to election officials on firearms, militias and other voting security issues.
Wisconsin does not ban firearms at the polls, but local governments can.
Janesville has never allowed weapons inside polling places, said city Clerk-Treasurer Dave Godek, and all four polling places are posted as such.
The city has limited the number of polling places because most voting is done absentee this year. The polls are Janesville City Hall, Hedberg Public Library, the former Sears store at Uptown Janesville and the Rock County Job Center.
But disruptions or carrying guns outside the polls is a gray area. Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said people have Second Amendment rights to carry firearms, so police would handle guns as they did at a protest in February 2017 when two men with long guns circled protesters at Jefferson Park.
Officers were assigned to stay with the men to reassure the crowd and monitor the gunmen, Moore said.
“I would expect a similar circumstance if someone would (carry a weapon) around a polling place,” he said. “I think you can expect Janesville officers to be very close, for that same purpose, to offer what level of comfort and security that we can.”
At the same time, officers would not try to diminish the exercise of the Second Amendment, Moore said.
The 2017 protest was largely against newly inaugurated President Donald Trump, and Trump is the source of some current concerns.
The racist Proud Boys were emboldened by the president’s recent statement that they should “stand back and stand by,” according to news reports. Trump on other occasions has called on supporters to monitor polling places and look for fraud.
The killing of two protesters by a teen carrying a gun during the recent protests in Kenosha also heightens concerns.
Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson said deputies are training this week on how to handle poll disruptions.
Guns are forbidden on school grounds, Knudson noted, and some government buildings ban firearms on their premises, but there’s no ban on openly carrying weapons at some other polling places.
“If an election inspector says there’s a problem with people intimidating voters waiting to get in, that would certainly get our attention, and we would send somebody there to help navigate that issue,” Knudson said.
Knudson said he hopes such problems don’t happen here.
State law forbids advocating for a candidate within 100 feet of a poll, but that’s relatively short distance, and voters waiting in line could easily hear someone one yelling from 100 feet away.
Moore said people have their First Amendment right to express themselves, within limits, outside the 100-foot zone.
Godek said he would err on the side of voters being free from intimidation and would ask police to intervene if disruptors won’t stop.
Moore said threats of violence are not protected speech, and “We certainly would intercede at that point and hope we could persuade people to behave properly. But sometimes, our fix is an arrest.”
Pointing a gun at someone could also prompt an arrest, Moore said.
Godek said disruptions at the polls are rare here.
“We’ve had a lot of success in Janesville and in Rock County. I think our voters for the most part wouldn’t stand for that,” Godek said. “I just don’t see people in our community supporting outright voter intimidation or any of that stuff, on either side. It’s just that Midwest common sense that we have, that we can disagree politically, but we don’t have to be disagreeable about it.”
Godek said anyone feeling intimidated should tell the chief election inspector or call his office, 608-755-3073.
“Don’t engage that person. Let us handle it,” Godek said, and if a voter feels his safety is threatened, call 911.
No one interviewed for this story had heard of any threatened disruptions at the polls.
Moore said he will appoint officers to monitor potential threats.
Knudson said he appointed a deputy to stay in touch with Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson, whose office collects and stores election results but does not run elections at the poll level.
Some election inspectors might allow a voter wearing a campaign button or T-shirt in the polls, while other inspectors might ask that the button or shirt be removed, Godek said.
On the other hand, “driving through the parking lot with a bullhorn and saying vote for this person, that’s electioneering,” Godek said.
What constitutes harassing behavior is the purview of the chief inspector at each poll, and he or she could remove anyone who is disrupting voters, with police help if needed, Godek said.
Parking a car with a big campaign sign on it won’t be allowed, Tollefson said, but bumper stickers in the parking lot are OK.
Voters won’t be kicked out for wearing campaign garb, Tollefson said, but voters are not allowed to campaign while in line.
Moore and Knudson said in the past, their officers have dropped in at the polls from time to time.
But not this year, Moore said, because recent racial-justice demonstrations have changed things.
Those demonstrations protested police brutality in cities around the nation. There have been no such incidents locally.
Republicans have pointed to violence associated with some protests and have made law-and-order and back-the-badge rhetoric part of their campaigns.
“The perception of the police has changed significantly in the last number of months,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t want our officers’ presence to be viewed as support for any one candidate.”
“That’s not a good look; I don’t think it’s necessary,” Godek said. “I think there’s a segment of the population that unintentionally could be intimidated by a police presence, even though they would be there to maintain safety and order.”
Election observers are common, often working for political parties.
Observers affiliated with the Trump campaign and Democratic Party have been at Janesville’s early voting site the past two weeks with no problems, Godek said.
Anyone can show up and ask to observe. They must sign in and show ID. They must follow rules that include no talking to voters and staying within physical limits the chief inspector gives them, Tollefson said.
Coronavirus restrictions have limited the number of stations where observers can sit. If too many show up, they will be limited on how long they can stay so others get a chance, officials said.
Observers are allowed to ask questions of poll workers. They are not allowed to take photos or video or talk on their phones. Texting is allowed. They may not wear anything indicating support for a candidate. They can be removed for causing a disruption.
Observers are required to wear masks. Voters are not required to wear masks because of an elections commission ruling that says only the Legislature can impose restrictions on voting, Godek said.
Voters, however, will be encouraged to mask up, and masks will be available.
Tollefson and Godek said they like having observers.
“Having someone understand the checks and balances and see how the system works, I think that’s a positive for the system,” Tollefson said. “Most people don’t understand what we do and how much goes into an election.”
“I think what they’re going to find is observing the election is really boring,” Godek said. “It’s a really regimented, routine process.”
If Joe Biden wins next week’s election, he says he’ll immediately call Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert. He’ll work with governors and local officials to institute a nationwide mask-wearing mandate and ask Congress to pass a sweeping spending bill by the end of January to address the coronavirus and its fallout.
That alone would mark a significant shift from President Donald Trump, who has feuded with scientists, struggled to broker a new stimulus deal and reacted to the recent surge in U.S. virus cases by insisting the country is “rounding the turn.”
But Biden would still face significant political challenges in combating the worst public health crisis in a century. He will encounter the limits of federal powers when it comes to mask requirements and is sure to face resistance from Republicans who might buck additional relief spending.
“There are no magic wands,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins University and former Maryland state health department chief who recently briefed Biden on reopening schools during the pandemic. “It’s not like there’s an election and then the virus beats a hasty retreat.”
Biden’s plan for handling the coronavirus pandemic is taking on new urgency as cases spike around the country. Average deaths per day nationwide are up 10% over the past two weeks, from 721 to nearly 794 as of Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins. Confirmed infections per day are rising in 47 states; deaths are up in 34.
Meanwhile, a fresh outbreak of cases at the White House among Vice President Mike Pence’s staff has revived concerns about the impact of the virus on the government.
The early days of a Biden administration would be consumed by a pandemic response.
“I’m here to tell you we can and will get control of this virus,” Biden said Tuesday during a campaign stop in Georgia. “As president, I will never wave the white flag of surrender.”
A $3 trillion spending package that cleared the Democratic-controlled House has stalled in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold the majority. Biden has called the Senate GOP “so damn stupid” for not passing that measure, but has failed to propose a single comprehensive package of his own.
Instead, he has said Congress should approve $30 billion to help schools reopen and has proposed a $700 billion economic plan. But that plan isn’t solely focused on the coronavirus and includes provisions to boost industries like manufacturing to create jobs and help revive the economy when the pandemic begins to subside.
Biden also wants to declare reopening schools a “national emergency” and access potentially billions more dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster response aid. He says he would seek a national system for tracing the exposure path for those diagnosed with the virus—part of a larger public health corps that Biden suggests might function like the civilian-led conservation corps that President Franklin Roosevelt created in the Depression-era New Deal.
And Biden has vowed to increase testing capacity in every state until the U.S. is screening daily the 7.5 million people it currently tests per week, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
On other fronts, Biden’s plans seem to be contingent on winning over allies and rivals alike, which could be challenging in the aftermath of a bitter election. He has called for a rule requiring masks in public for everyone, something the federal government doesn’t actually have the power to implement. Instead, Biden says he’ll impose such a mandate for all federal buildings and on federally funded, interstate transit.
Some Republican governors, including in states like North Dakota where virus cases are on the rise, refuse to implement mask requirements. Biden says he’ll lobby them nonetheless, and if they refuse, he said Friday that he’ll go around them by contacting “mayors and county executives to get local masking requirements in place nationwide.”
Biden has offered more cohesive plans for other major challenges facing the U.S. He has proposed, for instance, spending $2 trillion to combat climate change by boosting investment in clean energy and stopping all climate-damaging emissions from the U.S. economy by 2050.
Such an approach could be hard to replicate, though, against a pandemic that is rapidly changing.
In devising its pandemic-fighting plans, Biden’s campaign consulted with experts including Vivek Murthy, who served as surgeon general under President Barack Obama, and David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, along with members of Congress, governors, mayors and other local officials—some of them Republican.
But Biden hasn’t said whether he would endorse large-scale shutdowns of the nation’s economy if things get drastically worse. His team hasn’t offered details on its timeline for bringing the virus under control or on what success would look like but has vowed to combat the pandemic in a way the Trump administration has failed to do.
“I think we have to make it work,” said Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director, who noted that the former vice president has conceded that the task “isn’t going to be easy or happen overnight.”
“But it is something that he feels confident that the administration, with leadership that is not waving a white flag like President Trump, can, in partnership with the American people, take control of this virus and get our lives back,” Feldman said.
At the start of the pandemic, Biden and other Democrats criticized Trump for moving too slowly to use the Defense Production Act to step up national production of ventilators and other medical and protective equipment. While the Trump administration later employed the measure in some cases, Biden promises as president to use it more frequently, including to encourage banks to extend loans to small businesses hurt by the virus.
The Biden campaign also stresses that he will make a point of empowering career public health experts and “listening to the science.” Kavita Patel, a physician and health policy expert who worked in Obama’s White House, said that will be instrumental in making the governmental response to the pandemic more effective.
“Do not discount what it means for the morale to put credible and collaborative leadership at these agencies,” she said.
Patel added that, even if Congress can’t approve emergency relief by the end of January—just 11 days after Biden would be inaugurated—the new president could still use the Office of Management and Budget to free up funds immediately, while taking unilateral steps like tapping federal stockpiles for urgently needed supplies.
“I am optimistic that he could do some things that would put a dent in this,” she said, noting that efforts “being done piecemeal and patchwork in different parts of the country, you could just see Biden actually federalizing completely.”
None of that will mean stopping the virus cold, though.
“Even strategy and a great set of ideas,” Patel said, “can’t take it from, say, 100,000 cases a day down to 10,000 immediately.”
Galen J. Humphrey
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