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Local governments not sure whether Biden vaccine mandate applies to them


Although at least one local private employer is complying with COVID-19 vaccination requirements for workers President Joe Biden issued last week, it could be a while before local governments decide whether to follow suit and apply the mandate to government workers and public union employees.

This week, officials for the city of Janesville, Rock County and the public school districts of Janesville and Milton told The Gazette they’re waiting for more guidance from federal workplace rule makers. Biden’s new edict requiring COVID-19 vaccinations by large private employers and federal contract workers could apply to some 5,000 local government and school district workers.

Local officials want to know if Biden’s executive order requiring private workplaces with 100 or more workers to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or face a burden of routine COVID-19 testing is binding.

Biden’s vaccine action last week was immediately met with threats of rule-blocking lawsuits from some large corporations.

Yet Rock County’s largest private-sector employer, Mercyhealth, has issued orders that would require its 2,600-some workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 starting Oct. 15. Any Mercyhealth workers who aren’t granted a medical exemption would face routine fees for weekly COVID-19 testing, under new rules Mercyhealth released last week.

In an email this week, Rock County Administrator Josh Smith said the county has not yet taken a stance on how Biden’s new rule might impact the county’s nearly 1,200 workers. He said the county has not yet received official notice related to vaccine requirements for its workforce.

“Once we do receive direction, it is likely that there will be an implementation period to allow organizations time to become compliant,” Smith wrote.

Smith noted the likelihood Biden’s mandate will face legal challenges, which might slow its overall implementation. Smith said the county’s read is that Biden intends the mandate to be implemented through the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the main private workplace regulatory agency.

Smith said OSHA rules aren’t always applicable to county employees.

“Local governments in Wisconsin are not subject to OSHA rules directly, although it is possible that such rules would be incorporated into Wisconsin’s own Department of Safety and Professional Services (rules) depending on how and where federal language is drafted.”

Biden previously mandated full vaccination of staff at nursing homes funded under federal Medicaid and Medicare systems.

Earlier this year, Rock County moved to require its own Rock Haven nursing home to comply with the worker vaccination mandate. The move led to a few dozen noncompliant nursing home workers being laid off or quitting, and later two groups of workers threatened to sue Rock County over the mandate.

The workers have argued that the county couldn’t legally mandate a vaccine that hadn’t yet received full FDA approval for use.

In May, Rock County mostly repealed the vaccine mandate at Rock Haven. But since then, the FDA has issued full approval of the vaccine by drug maker Pfizer.

Smith said the county has made no move to undo its May 2021 ban on vaccine mandates. He said it’s likely the county won’t decide whether to revive the vaccine mandate at Rock Haven until formal rules and an implementation timeline on Biden’s vaccine action are issued.

Smith said he is aware that Rock Haven receives about $17 million a year in federal funding and future payments could be in jeopardy if a vaccine mandate isn’t enforced there.

“Our assessment of the ramifications of not implementing a vaccine requirement, if it does end up resulting in the loss of federal funding, has not changed,” Smith wrote. “We will have to see what the rule says to know for sure, though.”

City of Janesville spokesperson Nick Faust said the city’s administration hasn’t dug into Biden’s new mandate. Like Smith, Faust said the city likely will wait for formal rules and a timeline for implementation of Biden’s rule before taking action locally.

Some local residents are asking how the city intends to proceed. Former Janesville city council member Jim Farrell said he emailed current city council members last week after Biden’s announcement.

Farrell, who said he lost a close relative to COVID-19, said he asked the council if they want to require all city employees get vaccinated.

City officials in midsummer repealed an in-house masking mandate for all city workers, citing a 70% vaccination rate that at the time was significantly higher than the overall public vaccination rate in the U.S.

The city re-implemented its mask mandate last month after the city clerk-treasurer’s office was shut down for several days after a worker tested positive for COVID-19.

Farrell said the earlier closure of one office in city hall is concerning. He said city workers’ vaccination rate hasn’t increased much since earlier in the summer.

“There’d be 30% of workers that aren’t (vaccinated). That’s significant,” he said.

Janesville School District spokesperson Patrick Gasper said the district is not in a hurry to take a stance on Biden’s edict. Pending OSHA rules will make clear what public schools must require of their workers.

Gasper pointed out a vaccination mandate might be a moot point when it comes to Janesville schools employees. He said the district has an overall staff vaccination rate of “94% or 95%.”

Gasper said the few staff member who remained unvaccinated would probably continue to meet medical exemptions even under a full mandate.

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Dragons on the Rock breathes excitement into Traxler Park

KANDU Industries hosted its second Dragons on the Rock boat festival Saturday at Traxler Park.

After its maiden event in 2019, KANDU canceled Dragons on the Rock last year due to the coronavirus.

During Saturday’s festivities, which featured 18 boats resembling the mythical fire-breathing beasts, paddlers competed in teams of 16 to 20 members. With names like Paddle Faster Pastor and Oar We There Yet, the boats and their crews were sure to treat attendees to spirited competitions.

Linda Diedrich, marketing director for KANDU, said the event was held as a fundraiser to help assist adults with disabilities or disadvantages. Diedrich said this year outperformed expectations by far. The money raised will go toward funding programs the organization offers to provide those services to the community.

Anthony Wahl 

Paddlers from First Lutheran Church paddle away from the dock as they move to the start position for their heat in the annual Dragon Boat Race and Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18.

The event also introduced two competitions, a keg toss and the Street Chef Challenge.

In the chef challenge, sponsored by Kerry Ingredients and Flavours, local food truck owners faced off to create dishes based on ingredients provided. Kerry, who partnered with KANDU in the past during a grilling championship at the Party at the Pits, had to get creative with the new fundraising chef competition. In order to hold the competition and stay within social distancing recommendations, the group chose to incorporate food trucks.

Gray Brewing, which hosted the keg toss, was one of three breweries that housed performers and served hand-crafted beverages. To celebrate Dragons on the Rock, the brewmasters put together a brew with a dragon passion juice flavoring.

Gray Brewing was also impacted by the coronavirus, seeing many of their celebrations halted. Sarah Gray, co-owner, said their springtime St. Patrick’s Day bash last year was just one of the many canceled events of the pandemic.

“2020 was a bad year to be in the beer business; it’s been an awesome summer (this year) to kind of get back out here and do events,” she said. “The beer has not stopped flowing today.”

For the main attraction, the competition narrowed down to three teams: Johnson Financial Group, the ABC Supply Aviators and the Certified Public Paddlers sponsored by Hagen CPA.

Jeremy Webb, of the Certified Public Paddlers, said the best thing about events such as the boat races is the camaraderie and time he gets to spend with those on his team.

“(It’s) just a fun time with friends,” he said.

Anthony Wahl 

The Certified Public Paddlers, sponsored by Hagen CPA, take off from the dock to begin their heat in the annual Dragon Boat Race and Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18.

Webb’s wife, Denise, who is the coach and drummer said the team’s strategy boils down to what she called “positive motivated energy.”

“It is all about connecting as a team,” she said. As the leader of the team, Denise relishes in the role of coordinating the team and delegating, which she calls “the best part.” Prior to the final race, the crew sat at second place, but Denise wasn’t too concerned with the outcome. “We’ll be happy with whatever (place) we come in,” she said.

In the end they came in second to the ABC Aviators and lost by a nose—a dragon’s nose.

Obituaries and death notices for Sept. 20, 2021

Chico Alegria

Michael Duane “Mike” Asmus

Frances Ann “Sancie” (Walker) Bailey

Donald R. Birschbach

Taylor Ekaterina Brandt

Beverly Bultman

Leroy Derhammer

Larry Junior Garrett

Marilyn E. Hakes

Dawn Johnson

Grace M. Kietzman

Carol R. Lieb

Alexander Loper

Dennis C. Redler

Glenn R. Reed

Richard “Dick” Rifenbery

Gerald Henry Thelen

Adolphus Williams

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Homeschooling in Wisconsin spikes in first year of COVID-19

The number of home-schooled Wisconsin children saw its largest increase since 1984 in the 2020-21 school year, suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic convinced many parents to take their kids’ education into their own hands.

Unlike public school enrollment, which has decreased over the past few years, home-school enrollment has been slowly increasing. Home-schooled students accounted for just 2.2% of all students in the 2019-2020 school year, but that percentage grew to 3.25% of students in 2020-2021.

With home-school enrollment increasing by 47% since last school year and virtual learning becoming more common, more parents are home schooling their children. And those who have been home schooling for years are feeling validated.

Made with Flourish

Missie Crisp, an administrator of the Facebook support group Homeschoolers of Western Wisconsin and board member of Eau Claire Virtual School, said that it was interesting how the pandemic brought about new schooling options—choices that helped ease the stress experienced by parents, students and teachers.

“For years, home schooling has had an interesting stigma/stereotype,” Crisp said. “It’s been kind of bittersweet over the past year and a half to see how a virus has suddenly made home schooling more accessible and acceptable to many.”

The Rev. Joshua D. Andrew, a home-schooling father in Eau Claire with a Ph.D. in education, said he believes that the number of students being home schooled are steadily increasing as parents find themselves in one or more of the following three categories.

  • “Pedagogues” are parents who believe that public schools represent a flawed system with outdated resources, misguided policies and undertrained and overworked teachers. These parents, often with backgrounds in education, believe they can do a better job away from the limitations of the public school system.
  • “Ideologues,” parents who see public schools as forcing a particular political or social agenda that undervalues or undermines their own. These parents—either motivated by political or religious convictions or desire to preserve minority cultural customs and traditions—elect to educate their children according to their own values.
  • Andrew said “a third group of parents have emerged in the home-schooling community. “These parents disdain the public-school environment due to safety reasons, such as school violence, bullying or the recent COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Other “environmental” objections concern the perceived inability of public schools to provide for a student’s special needs or adhere to their individualized education programs.

“Desiring a safer or more accommodating alternative for their children, these families choose to home-school permanently or in the interim as they seek alternative options. My wife and I choose to home-school due to a blend of all three rationales,” Andrew said.

Kristin Lokkesmoe of Eau Claire said home schooling for the past 20 years has allowed her to more fully interact with her children at each stage of their development. She said she has also seen closer relationships develop between her children, watched them become more independent learners and enjoy greater freedom to explore interests beyond the required core curriculum.

In addition to the flexibility that comes with home schooling, many parents of children with disabilities who require individualized accommodations, find that taking matters into their own hands is often the best option for their student.

Peg Linge, another member of the Western Wisconsin Homeschooling Support Group, has a son with ADHD, auditory processing deficit and multiple forms of dyslexia. Linge said his school did not have the resources to address her son’s particular needs, so he fell behind, which resulted in teasing and bullying.

Linge described her son as bright, creative, loving and motivated to keep up with his classmates.

“I decided to take on my son’s education to free him from the confines of public school,’’ Linge said. “He may not have been able to recite multiplication facts, but he can cook a stunning roast.”

Eau Claire mothers Lindsay Garcia and Kristen Enerson both decided to begin home schooling their children this year because they believe that with the stress and uncertainty the pandemic brought last year and could bring this year to school districts, the learn-from-home format can help their children succeed better.

For parents unsure about whether to home school their child, many members of the Homeschoolers of Western Wisconsin support group advise parents to trust their instincts.

“For parents deciding to home school, breathe, relax, be patient, flexible and kind to themselves,” support group member Candy Christianson said. “Trust that you know what’s best for your kid and if you don’t get everything done that day there is always tomorrow and if you are having a bad day, stop. If it’s a good day, double up. Kids are constantly learning.”

Janesville Parker’s Cayden Brandenburg is brought down by Milton’s Jack Campion (3) and Aaron Thompson (52) in the first half of their game in Milton on Friday, Sept. 17.