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County health department shares school closure guidance

JANESVILLE

Rock County public health officials clarified Friday that absentee rates for students and staff will be among the metrics used to determine when or if a classroom or school should close because of COVID-19.

If 7.5% of students and staff are absent from school because of illness, the school will be considered "in the red" and the county health department likely would investigate further before making a decision, health officials said.

Decisions on if classrooms or schools are closed or if districts or schools pivot to virtual learning will be up to each district administrator with guidance from the health department. School and health officials will compare other sets of data such as positivity rate and will rely on multiple statistics before deciding.

In addition to positivity rate, officials will monitor metrics such as:

  • The number of people absent with COVID-19 symptoms.
  • The number out sick with non-COVID symptoms.
  • New case trends over 14 days.
  • Percentage changes in positive cases over the last 14 days.

“There is no set number that says, ‘OK, we will close.' It’s all based on looking at all of the data together,” said Lori Soderberg, public health supervisor for Rock County and a former Beloit Turner School District school nurse.

A “stoplight” model will be used by district administrators to track the possible spread of COVID-19 when students return to school, Soderberg said.

School district leaders will plug information about students and staff into an interactive county database each day. The database will dictate how each school is performing.

  • Green will indicate smooth sailing.
  • Yellow will indicate increased conversations and planning should begin.
  • Red will indicate intervention is needed.

If a district begins to see red in multiple areas, the county likely will recommend closure of a classroom, school building or district.

Each district will be able to choose its own numbers for the metrics, but the health department has recommended illness rates of 2.5% of the school population for green, 5% for yellow and 7.5% or higher for red.

“There isn’t a true cutoff,” Soderberg said, “but a key number is the positivity rate in both schools and the county.”

The positivity rate is the percentage of people tested who test positive for the virus.

The guidelines were created after discussions with district leaders, health professionals in the county and examination of other states returning to schools.

Janesville School District Superintendent Steve Pophal said Friday that the district plans to follow the county's recommended percentages.

The system also will show COVID-19 data for all people in the county and within each school district.

About 4.5% of tests in Rock County are coming back positive, Soderberg said. The county is in the “red zone” for ongoing person-to-person transmission and hospitalization for COVID-19 symptoms.

Weekly meetings between area superintendents and the health department will continue into the school year, and planning for positive cases has been a joint effort between schools and the county.

The health department has assigned two public health nurses to act as liaisons with each area school district. The nurses will be contacts when districts believe a student might have COVID-19 and is being tested or showing symptoms.

The Janesville School District is preparing flowcharts detailing how to handle different levels of exposure and symptoms among students and teachers. If a school is closed or the district closes in-person instruction entirely because of confirmed positive cases, the pivot likely would be for at least 14 days, Soderberg said.

If there are positive cases in schools, the districts would work with the health department to contact trace and consider next steps.

“If we find out that they are school age or college age, those are the cases we’re going to jump on right away and really focus on because they likely have the largest number of contacts,” Soderberg said. “We want to make sure we contact them within 24 hours but have the interview done in 48 hours so that we can perform contact tracing and isolation protocols.”

“We’re trying to do everything that we can to narrow it down for them (district leaders) and help them make these decisions,” she said.

She approves of the mask requirements for area schools and the schools rearranging classrooms and teachers for safety, but she hopes districts in the county increase the number of school nurses available.

“It’s going to be very, very important for our schools to have a school nurse full-time in the buildings every day of the week. There are many schools in Wisconsin and the U.S. that share nurses or don’t have a school nurse fulltime.”

She said this year that can’t happen.

“Of the last 100 years, this is the most paramount year that they have a full-time nurse in every district and, preferably, every building.”

COVID-19 will hit schools, regardless of safety precautions. Now it’s all about taking precautions to minimize risk and the possibility of it spreading, Soderberg said.

“We are going to have cases, and we’re going to have to learn to deal with that the best way we can. We might have to open and close, but it will be a decision based on the data and conversations with administrators and the health department,” Soderberg said.

“Everybody has worked really hard to allow our kids to go to school and start out the school year as safe as possible. I think the parents should feel really good about that.”

This story was changed at 1:30 p.m. Friday to reflect that absentee rates are among many metrics that will influence whether a school or classroom is closed.


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A matter of heart: Artwork thanks frontline workers

JANESVILLE

Painting a heart is often the highlight of Sue Cullen’s day.

The longtime member of the Janesville Art League has painted at least 10 in recent months.

Her favorite features an image of Earth at its center, with the words “love” and “hope” circling the fragile planet.

On the outside of the heart’s perimeter are hands, big and small, including those of Cullen’s grandkids.

The heart greets people entering the Janesville Police Department and stands next to another reading: “Thank you. You are the heartbeat of our community.”

Anthony Wahl 

Sue Cullen, a longtime Janesville Art League member, creates a painted heart featuring the handprints of her grandchildren—from left, Kenley, Thea and Thomas—at her Janesville home Wednesday. More than 40 plywood hearts have been placed around the city to say thank you to health care workers and others for their dedication during the pandemic. The Janesville Art League and Rock County Historical Society are responsible for the heartfelt appreciation.

Cullen is one of many local artists and community members who have painted more than 60 hearts.

Each heart is a sincere thank you to city health care providers and other frontline workers who risk their lives because of COVID-19.

The Rock County Historical Society and the art league got together this spring to thank and offer support to medical personnel and first responders at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center with a project called #HeartArt.

Artists decorated plywood hearts and showcased them on the grounds of the Lincoln Tallman Restorations, where they are visible to workers at the Mercyhealth campus across the street.

“We put them on our property so they would see them coming in and out of work,” said Tim Maahs, historical society executive director.

Eventually, the art league contacted SSM Health St Mary’s Hospital- Janesville for permission to place hearts at its staff and main entrances.

Several weeks ago, the #HeartArt committee decided to spread the love by moving hearts into the community for more people to see and enjoy, Arra Lasse of the league said.

“Many hearts were made out to essential workers, so we thought we would share them with the city,” she said. “When you see the creative efforts on these hearts, it is just amazing. Old people have done them. Little kids have done them.”

Dozens are planted throughout the community, including at Janesville’s iconic cow.

Anthony Wahl 

Heart-shaped signs thanking essential workers are on display throughout Janesville, including by Bessie the Cow on the city’s north side.

Lasse calls the project unique because undecorated hearts are free to anyone interested in designing and painting a thank you.

People can decorate either a 2-by-2-foot or a 4-by-4-foot heart.

Maahs gets donations of plywood or cash to buy the plywood, and he has a team of volunteers who cut out the hearts.

“People from all walks of life have gotten involved,” Maahs said. “There are so many different ways to show your gratitude.”

Maahs, Lasse and Cullen hatched the idea in March.

“We thought the project would last 90 to 120 days when it started,” Maahs said. “But we are still handing out hearts.”

Painting a heart honors essential workers, but it also is a way for the artist to deal with anxiety in uncertain times.

“This is a joyous and feel-good project,” Cullen said. “If you have something fun in your life, it helps you through a bad time.”

She did a lot of painting with her grandkids because she wants them to be part of a community project.

“Their little handprints on the art are so caring,” she said.

Anthony Wahl 

Thea Cullen raises her painted hands after marking them on a plywood heart that will be placed on display in the community to thank health care workers and others for their dedication during the pandemic.

Lasse personally understands the sacrifice of health care workers. Her son-in-law is an emergency room nurse at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center.

Early in the pandemic, his wife and the couple’s children temporarily moved in with Lasse until June.

“They decided it would be safer,” Lasse explained.

Elana Wistrom, a Mercyhealth doctor, painted several hearts with her children.

“I did it because I want- ed to show the community that we are all in this together,” Wistrom said.

One heart carries the words “one world, one love.”

“The world is one community when it comes to the coronavirus,” she said. “We are all in the war against this together. We all have to do our part.”

Wistrom said working on the hearts and viewing the hearts around the city make a big difference to her.

“I can see one on the way to work every day,” she said. “Some days it is difficult to put on all the (protective) gear knowing that you will be exposed to this lethal virus. The heart lifts me up, for sure.”

Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra .com.


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Who wins Wisconsin? Experts urge early voting and patience on election night

JANESVILLE

If you’re expecting to know who won the presidential race on election night, rethink that.

Results of congressional and other races in Wisconsin also might be unknown after polls close Nov. 3, in part because of a problem in Janesville and other cities.

The problem is an unprecedented number of absentee ballots, which voters are expected to use in droves to avoid possible coronavirus infection at the polls.

Wisconsin has already held two elections during the pandemic, but the numbers of absentee ballots to be counted Nov. 3 likely will be much greater, said Dave Godek, Janesville city clerk.

The law requires absentee ballots to be processed on Election Day, and doing so takes longer than it does when voters cast their ballots at the polls. That’s because two poll workers must verify the ballots were correctly filled out before the ballots are fed into vote-tabulating machines.

Godek figures that with the tabulators available to him and a projected 25,000 absentee ballots, it could take 35 hours to count them all. That means no immediate results.

Godek and the rest of the local clerks got their results done on election nights in April and August, but numbers of voters were much lower then.

A high-speed ballot tabulator would solve the problem.

Rock County is on a waiting list with a tabulator manufacturer—it’s not clear how high on the list—at a time when clerks around the country are also ordering the machines.

The cost is around $62,000. Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson said federal pandemic Roads to Recovery aid would pay for it.

If Tollefson can obtain the high-speed machine for Janesville, Janesville would loan its slower machines to Beloit, which would speed up Beloit’s process, she said.

It takes about eight seconds for the slower machines to process a ballot, Tollefson said. A high-speed machine can do 72 per minute.

If the high-speed counter does not arrive by Nov. 3, it’s possible that towns that finish their counting early Nov. 3 could loan their machines to bigger municipalities, Tollefson said.

No matter what happens, it could be difficult night. Tollefson said she wants officials to take their time and get it right.

“We’re just going to have a lot of very tired (poll workers on election night),” Tollefson said. “The more tired you get, the more mistakes you make, so exhaustion is part of our concern.”

Wisconsin likely will be key to any presidential win, but other important states—New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania—are predicting their results likely will be delayed, as well, some of them by weeks, said UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden.

Burden said New York took a month to report results for its primary earlier this year.

“Wisconsin may be one of the speedier swing states, actually,” he said.

Burden advised people to wait patiently for election officials to do their work. Accuracy in an election, he said, is better than speed.

“Maybe the pandemic has taught us to be more patient,” Burden said. “We’re waiting for vaccines. We’re waiting for schools to open. We’re going to need to wait for the election to be counted accurately and fully. …

“There’s a temptation on election night when results are unfinished or unclear, for people to jump to conclusions, about there being fraud, about something being wrong. I can see why that’s tempting, but it’s a real mistake, and it can jeopardize the process,” he said.

When something goes wrong in an election, “it’s usually just incompetence or a mistake,” Burden said. He noted some Democrats still think the Waukesha County clerk did something to shift the state Supreme Court race to conservative David Prosser in 2011, but a data-entry error was responsible for mis-reporting of early results, and Prosser’s narrow victory was confirmed in a recount.

Burden said many voters in November will be new voters or those who vote infrequently, so it’s hard to tell whether they will choose absentee voting as overwhelmingly as the much smaller numbers of voters did in the April and August elections.

Another uncertainty involves three federal lawsuits that could affect how ballots are counted, Burden said.

Susan Johnson, a professor of political science at UW-Whitewater, said President Donald Trump and others have suggested mail-in ballots could be faked, and that could give rise to conspiracy theories on an election night with no result.

But Johnson sees little evidence that has taken place, or that it could.

“Wisconsin has a very restrictive system of absentee balloting,” Johnson said. “It requires you still have proof of ID, that you have a witness sign your ballot packet before you mail it in. So that should give people in Wisconsin more confidence in getting absentee ballots and mailing them back in, and I think that’s important.”


Obituaries and death notices for Aug. 28, 2020

Arlene G. Brost

Lucas A. Burns

Lois A. Dibble

Elizabeth M. Hareid

Doris A. Kriigel

Frederick Jacob Kummer

Jenna K. Matzke

Scott Mori

Kyle S. Reed

Carol Louise Schutt

Cheryl E. Stacey

Robert Jae Swedberg

Wayne E. Thornton

Suzan Sorensen Wade

Beverly “Bev” Wescott

Adolph “Al” Witt

Frederick I. Wright