MILTON—“Neil, Thank you for the yummy Apple you gave me,” my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Pohl, wrote on a powder-blue construction paper heart. The date: September 1984.
The old thank-you card is a relic from an earlier millennium, the sort of thing you keep tucked away in a scrapbook in the attic. You trot it out when someone wants evidence that late 20th-century schoolboys actually gave their teachers apples.
It must have been a dandy of an apple. I imagine I spent the whole ride to school puffing hot kid breath on that apple and buffing it against my striped, Bert-and-Ernie T-shirt.
For obvious reasons, there will be no apple polishing at school this year.
As I packed Quinn and Levi’s backpacks for their first day of kindergarten Tuesday morning, I double-checked that we’d tucked in their new teachers’ gift-wrapped surprises. This year, in place of an apple, the boys are giving their teachers new cotton face masks with teacher memes printed on them.
As I drove my twin sons up Highway 26 to Milton East Elementary School, I thought about the peculiar, sudden shift in tradition brought about by the COVID-19 era: Cloth face mask is the new apple.
It’s such a small thing. Why does it seem to carry such significance?
For Quinn and Levi, here is the significance of face masks: 1. They understand face coverings guard them, their classmates and their teachers against the spread of a virus that’s too small to see. 2. Quinn thinks the masks make him look like a ninja. 3.) Levi really likes the way his mask smells.
That’s about as circumspect as two 5-year-old boys are going to get about COVID-19. They’re just ready for school. They’re excited, and I’m glad.
With freshly coiffed school hair and bellies full of breakfast, the boys chattered away in the back seat of my car, their chipmunk voices muffled by the cloth masks they decided to put on right away.
For the last four days, Levi and Quinn have repeatedly watched prerecorded video clips of their teachers welcoming them to school. After about 27 viewings of those videos, one concept repeats itself in my brain.
It’s something Quinn’s teacher, Mrs. Fladhammer, said. Her face was on camera, partially covered by a mask.
“This mask only covers my mouth and nose,” she said. “But it’s not covering up the fun we’ll have in kindergarten.”
That’s reassurance parents might need more than their kids do. I’m new to this. I’ve never dropped off my boys for their first-ever day of school. Even that’s different this year.
Any parent who had kids in school last century might remember the days when parents held their son’s or daughter’s hand as they walked into the classroom on the first day of kindergarten. Even before COVID-19, in our era of heightened school security, that rite of passage has been gradually phased out.
Now, we drop our kids off at the door, and school staff escorts the kids into class.
This year, with schools reopening in the midst of a pandemic, it’s even trickier. Now, instead of a door-side drop—where parents might linger in clusters—staff will meet students at their parents’ cars and escort them straight into school.
Jen Cramer, Milton East’s principal, told me the idea is to keep parents and students from clustering on the playground and next to the entrances. From a public health perspective, it’s one of many social-distancing measures schools are putting in place to try to keep people safe.
Cramer said some of the adjustments being made to run schools safely feel as cumbersome and foreign to teachers as they do to parents.
“One of the biggest struggles is that typically with elementary school, is you have that ‘hug’ picture where a teacher crouches down by a student and poses for that first day of kindergarten. Years from now, those are the pictures you go back to,” Cramer said. “You think to yourself, ‘I want to be able to do that.’ But you can’t do any of that right now.”
Tonight and probably a thousand times later, I’ll ask my boys what they remember most about their first day of kindergarten.
I know what I’ll remember most: A few days before the start of the school year, Milton East staff scheduled a school supplies drive-thru drop-off in the school’s parking lot. That allowed Quinn and Levi an in-person, curbside meet-and-greet with their new teachers, Mrs. Fladhammer and Mrs. Neuenschwander.
COVID-19 concerns put a damper on fully orchestrated school open houses, but the curbside meeting might have been more memorable.
I got to watch my two masked ninjas absorbing with excited, bright-blue eyes everything their teachers said. Before their chat wrapped up, the boys broke out Kitty and Snip, two stuffed kitty dolls they’d brought with them. They wanted their teachers to pet their dolls.
Mrs. Fladhammer and Mrs. Neuenschwander tentatively patted the stuffed kitties on their heads. But before they did, they looked at me tentatively. Was it OK for them to get that close? To touch?
I didn’t say this to the two teachers, but I guess I should have:
It’s OK. We’re all trying to figure this out. It’s not the same. Nothing’s the same. But we’re all working on it. We’ll make it OK, somehow.
For Richie Degaro and his mother, Sabrina, the first day of instruction in Janesville schools today will be filled with excitement, nervous tension and unknowns.
Richie, who is going into sixth grade at Franklin Middle School, must adjust to a new style of learning in his first year of middle school.
The coronavirus pandemic will bring even more changes because Richie is learning in person rather than virtually.
Janesville School District students spent Tuesday, the first official day of school, meeting their teachers and learning how in-person school will work this year. Families and teachers discussed learning styles, students’ strengths and weaknesses, how each child handled the pivot to learning at home in spring, and parent concerns.
The Degaros, along with dad Rich, met with Elizabeth Lamont, a sixth-grade math and reading teacher. Sabrina said in-person school seemed like the right fit for her son.
“I just felt like it was not only easier, but more of a hands-on learning experience,” she said. “I think he’ll learn better being face to face than interactive because that way if he has any questions, the teacher’s right there. He’s got other students to help.”
Sabrina admitted that she worried about Richie learning in person this fall, but meeting staff and touring the school helped ease some of those concerns.
Just down the hall, sixth-grade social studies and reading teacher Marshall Reese was conducting his own meetings with families. He said they didn’t seem too nervous about the virus.
“I haven’t heard any concerns today. The kids are pretty excited about getting back to school,” Reese said.
He said his conversations with parents seemed to be more about adjusting to middle school than COVID-19.
During the 2019-20 school year, Reese said his average class had 26 to 28 students. This year, his largest class has 22 students. The number changes daily as families decide which educational method they want to use this year, he said.
Despite the different look of registration and the first day of school, Reese said the virus won’t cause him to change his classes much even if he has to pivot to virtual teaching. Reese uses online learning platform Google Classroom for his curriculum, which helps his classes communicate and stay organized.
Reese said there was no denying the joy in the building Tuesday.
“It feels good to see the kids,” he said. “In the back of our minds, we all have COVID concerns, but as a teacher you’re here for the kids, and so many of our kids need to be in school. Being at home just isn’t a good option for a lot of kids, and a lot of parents have to work.
“To see a kid’s face to face for the first time in five and a half months, it’s a good feeling.”
For the Degaros, Tuesday served to help settle their nerves ahead of the first day of instruction.
Richie thought so, too, but his main concern was that September came so quickly.
“I’m kind of nervous for the first day, but I think I’ll be fine because there’s people here to help me,” he said. “But I’m not ready for summer to be over.”
President Donald Trump stood at the epicenter of the latest eruption over racial injustice Tuesday and came down squarely on the side of law enforcement, blaming “domestic terror” for the violence here and making no nod to the underlying cause of anger and protests—the shooting of another Black man by police.
Trump declared the violence “anti-American.” He did not mention Jacob Blake, who was left paralyzed after being shot in the back seven times by an officer last week in Kenosha.
Soon after arriving in the city—a visit made over the objections of state and local leaders—Trump toured the charred remains of a block besieged by violence and fire. With the scent of smoke still in the air, he spoke to the owners of a century-old store that had been destroyed and continued to link the violence to the Democrats, blaming those in charge of Kenosha and Wisconsin while raising apocalyptic warnings if their party should capture the White House.
“These are not acts of peaceful protest but, really, domestic terror,” Trump said. And he condemned Democratic officials for not immediately accepting his offer of federal enforcement assistance, claiming, “They just don’t want us to come.”
The city has been the scene of protests since the Aug. 23 shooting of Blake, who was shot as he tried to get into a car while police were trying to arrest him. Protests have been concentrated in a small area of Kenosha. While there were more than 30 fires set in the first three nights, the situation has calmed since then.
Trump’s motorcade passed throngs of demonstrators, some holding American flags in support of the president, others jeering while carrying signs that read Black Lives Matter. A massive police presence, complete with several armored vehicles, secured the area, and barricades were set up along several of the city’s major thoroughfares to keep onlookers at a distance from the passing presidential vehicles.
Offering federal resources to help rebuild the city, Trump toured a high school that had been transformed into a heavily fortified law enforcement command post. He said he tried to call Blake’s mother but opted against it after the family asked that a lawyer listen in.
Trump later added he felt “terribly” for anyone who suffered a loss, but otherwise only noted that the situation was “complicated” and “under investigation.” The only words acknowledging the concerns of African Americans came from a pastor who attended Trump’s law enforcement roundtable.
Pressed by reporters, Trump repeatedly pivoted away from assessing any sort of structural racism in the nation or its police departments, instead blasting what he saw as anti-police rhetoric. Painting a dark portrait of parts of the nation he leads, the president predicted that chaos would descend on cities across America if voters elect Democrat Joe Biden to replace him in November.
Biden hit back, speaking to donors on a fundraising call after Trump left Kenosha.
“Donald Trump has failed to protect America. So now he’s trying to scare the hell out of America,” Biden said. “Violence isn’t a problem in Donald Trump’s eyes. It’s a political strategy.”
The election is playing out in “anxious times,” with “multiple crises,” Biden said. He included police violence in the list, along with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, and said Trump refuses to address any of them honestly.
Trump aides believe that his tough-on-crime stance will help him with voters and that the more the national discourse is about anything other than the coronavirus, the better it is for the president.
Biden said after Trump’s Wisconsin visit: “The vast majority of cops are honorable, decent and real. But the idea that he wouldn’t even acknowledge the problem—and white nationalists are raising their heads all across the country.”
Trump condemned unrest in Portland, Oregon, too, where a supporter of his was shot and killed recently and tried to take credit for stopping the violence in Kenosha with the National Guard. But it was Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who deployed the Guard to quell demonstrations in response to the Blake shooting, and he had pleaded with Trump to stay away for fear of straining tensions further.
“I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing,” Evers wrote in a letter to Trump. “I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together.”
Biden has assailed Trump as an instigator of the deadly protests that have sprung up on his watch. On the eve of his visit, Trump defended a teenager accused of fatally shooting two men at a demonstration in Kenosha last week, though he did not mention the young man Tuesday.
Claiming the mantle of the “law and order” Republican candidate, Trump insists that he, not Biden, is the leader best positioned to keep Americans safe. He said his appearance in Kenosha would “increase enthusiasm” in Wisconsin, perhaps the most hotly contested battleground state in the presidential race.
Blake’s family held a Tuesday “community celebration” at a distance from Trump’s visit.
“We don’t need more pain and division from a president set on advancing his campaign at the expense of our city,” Justin Blake, an uncle, said in a statement. “We need justice and relief for our vibrant community.”
The NAACP said Tuesday neither candidate should visit the Wisconsin city as tension simmers. Biden’s team has considered a visit to Kenosha and had previously indicated that a trip to Wisconsin was imminent but has not offered details.
Protests in Kenosha began the night of Blake’s shooting, Aug. 23, and were concentrated in the blocks around the county courthouse downtown. There was an estimated $2 million in damage to city property, and Kenosha’s mayor has said he is seeking $30 million from the state to help rebuild.
Trump announced Tuesday that his administration was making $5 million available to the city and sending than $42 million to the state, with most of the funding aimed at bolstering law enforcement, he said.
The violence reached its peak the night of Aug. 25, two days after Blake was shot, when police said the 17-year-old armed with an illegal semi-automatic rifle shot and killed two protesters in the streets. Since then marches organized both by backers of police and Blake’s family have all been peaceful with no vandalism or destruction to public property.
Biden, all the while, has tried to refocus the race on what has been its defining theme—Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 180,000 Americans dead—after a multi-day onslaught by the president’s team to make the campaign about the violence rattling American cities.
Biden’s wife, Jill, on Tuesday kicked off a multi-week, 10-city tour of schools disrupted by the pandemic in eight battleground states, drawing a direct line from the empty classrooms to the administration’s failures combating COVID-19.
During her tour of a Wilmington, Delaware, school, she spoke with teachers and administrators about doubts that in-person learning will actually resume anytime soon and the challenges—including obtaining new small desks and protective equipment to make sure classrooms can handle social distancing—if they do. She said feelings about heading back to school “have turned from excitement into anxiety, and the playgrounds are still.”
Rock County judges have decided to ease back toward normal operations after more than four months when nearly all court hearings were either postponed or held using the Zoom conferencing app.
Some hearings will now be held in person, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re looking at a very small number (of hearings),” Judge Karl Hanson said.
The judges determined that as of Monday, they had met the benchmarks they set in their reopening plan.
Those benchmarks include courthouse preparations such as hand sanitizing stations, signs indicating social distances, installation of see-through plastic panels, air purifiers and arrangements for all courtroom surfaces to be sanitized between hearings.
While most hearings still will be conducted remotely, the hearings that might be in person include pleas and sentencings, juvenile case dispositions and some other juvenile matters, injunction hearings, family law matters involving contested placement or custody, mental commitment and guardianship hearings with time limits and cases involving interpreters.
“Parties, attorneys and other participants should continue to appear at hearings by Zoom videoconferencing unless notified by the court to appear in person,” the announcement reads.
In-person hearings might involve a combination of in-person and remote appearances, if some participants have legitimate health concerns, Hanson said.
“We will seriously consider those requests because we understand the concerns that people have right now,” Hanson said.
Jury trials have been on hold since late March. A separate plan for jury trials will be announced soon, with trials resuming Oct. 5, Hanson said.
Hanson said defendants have the right to in-person hearings, and a small number have decided they want that, so those postponed hearings will be scheduled as quickly as possible.
Anyone attending a hearing must wear a mask and read the self-screening questions posted at the entrance to the courthouse.
The slow reopening of the courts is not necessarily the start of a complete return to in-person hearings. The judges’ plan states that the courts might revert to all remote hearings if circumstances, such as a sudden increase in COVID-19 cases, change.
If conditions improve, judges could decide to move to Phase 3, in which most hearings would be in person.
Phase 3 will happen only if the county health department decides to enter its own Phase 3. The county is now in Phase 2.
The clerk of courts will start offering limited in-person services in the near future, but counter service will still not be available, said Clerk of Courts Jacki Gackstatter.
Gackstatter plans to announce that change soon.
Gary A. Anderson
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James “Jim” Hessenauer
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Roger L. “Ike” Olstad
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