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Zoom justice: Local judges work remotely, wait for word on ‘new normal’

Imagine a courtroom: Judge, jury, attorneys, the public, security staff all wearing masks.

Attendees are quizzed and have their temperatures taken at the courthouse entrance.

That might be what local courtrooms will look like when they start holding jury trials again, maybe sometime this summer.

Courts statewide have postponed jury trials and delayed some other hearings since late March.

As they shift back to handling all those cases, it won’t be getting back to normal, said Rock County Chief Judge Daniel Dillon in an interview this week. Rather, it’ll be a new normal.

Dillon and Judge John Wood pointed to a state courts task force that met earlier in the week in which Dr. Dennis Maki, professor emeritus at UW Medical School, recommended surgical masks—not cloth masks—and maybe gloves for court hearings to ward off COVID-19 infection.

The state court system has banned in-person hearings for now, so Rock County judges have taken to the Zoom online conferencing app, with defendants, attorneys and judges appearing in boxes on the same screen from different locations.

Walworth County judges are holding hearings via phone conference.

The public has been able to “attend” the Rock County hearings on each court’s YouTube channel.

Rock County Judge Michael Haakenson, who handles all juvenile cases, has been “appearing” from home.

Zoom allows users to add a background, so some judges have added a courtroom image, making it look as if they are on the bench.

“It takes a little longer” than an in-person hearing, Haakenson said, because he has to manage the Zoom screen for each hearing. Some people join in by regular phone so their images don’t appear.

Haakenson also handles a treatment court designed to keep intoxicated drivers from repeating their mistakes.

“You lose that personal connection (in a Zoom conference), and I think treatment court is not as effective, but we’re making contact, so at least we can see folks and talk about what’s going on,” Haakenson said. “It’s what we have, and we’re using it well for what it is.”

The courts will return to in-person hearings at some point. Dillon said that could happen as early as June, but it could take longer.

At the task force meeting, Maki said jury trials could possibly resume in late summer with precautions in place, but he cautioned that it’s impossible at this point to predict how the COVID-19 situation will evolve.

Jury trial precautions would include masks, courtroom air purifiers, health screenings, seating jurors at safe distances in court and their deliberation rooms, hand sanitizer stations and daily cleaning of courtroom surfaces, Maki recommended.

Meanwhile, court officials face the prospect of catching up on numerous postponed cases.

“We’re going to be hit with a pretty major backlog if we don’t get things rolling,” said Patrick Brummond, La Crosse County courts administrator, in the state task force meeting.

“We are all fearful of the backlog of cases we are going to be facing in the fall,” Wood said.

Dillon said he is confident Rock County can handle its backlog. He anticipates the judges who don’t usually handle criminal cases—four of the seven judges—will lend a hand on criminal matters.

“We fully anticipate we will do what we can to help each other out,” Dillon said. “I have no doubt it’s doable.”

The state task force is expected to issue criteria for restarting in-person hearings by the end of May. Then each county’s circuit court will adapt those criteria for local courthouses.

Wood said Rock County administration, health department, sheriff’s office and courts are already working on changes they will need to make.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve and at least do some advance planning so we are ready to hit the ground running as soon as the state task force recommendations come out.”

Janesville Farmers Market shoppers say preserving market is worth masks, rules


Noga Turk asked a Janesville police officer stationed at the corner of East Wall and North Main streets Saturday morning if she could take his picture.

It’s just so bizarre to see a police officer watching over a farmers market, Turk said, explaining why she snapped the photo.

Police officers, masks, hand-washing stations and social distancing are part of the Janesville Farmers Market’s new normal for the 2020 season.

Anthony Wahl 

Don Blakeney of Amazing Grace Family Farm makes a sale during the first farmers market of the season Saturday in Janesville.

Those precautions allow the market to stay open despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shut down many retailers and forced people to stay home as much as possible to avoid spreading the virus.

Saturday kicked off the market’s season, and Director Emily Arthur said she was pleased with the turnout.

Booths were moved into a single line on the west side of Main Street. Attendees were encouraged to move through lines while maintaining distance and avoiding congregating in groups.

Attendance was a little thinner than a typical opening day, but considering the safer-at-home order and fewer vendors, it was a good turnout, Arthur said.

Turk, a Janesville resident originally from Israel, was one of dozens of people to shop the market in its first hour of opening.

New rules, such as having to wear a mask and maintaining distance from other people, did not impede her experience, she said.

Anthony Wahl 

People line up on East Wall Street according to social-distancing guidelines for the first Janesville Farmers Market of the season Saturday.

A frequent shopper, Turk said she would do whatever it takes to keep the market running.

“To me, it’s like going to church,” she said.

Lynn Dahleen, owner of Homegrown Exchange in Albany, is starting her sixth year of selling vegetables, canned goods, plant starters and other kinds of plants at the market.

She said it never crossed her mind to pull out of the market, which is crucial to her business. Dahleen believes the new guidelines will keep people safe and allow vendors to earn a living.

Dahleen started letting people preorder online so they can plan their market shopping in advance and spend less time browsing around.

Preorders have already been so successful that Dahleen is considering keeping that feature long term, she said.

Anthony Wahl 

Lynn Dahleen stresses to a customer that she has been using hand sanitizer as they exchange money for spinach during the first Janesville Farmers Market of the season Saturday.

Don Blakeney of Amazing Grace Family Farm in Janesville, who was selling meat Saturday, said he helped start the farmers market and would support it no matter what.

Blakeney said he hopes some of the rules will relax as the season goes on.

Market staff and board members will take notes each week and make decisions on which features can be slowly reinstated, Arthur said.

The market currently is accepting only vendors who sell food. All of them must use single-use bags.

Arthur soon hopes to add flower sales and let shoppers bring reusable bags.

Anthony Wahl 

A man walks past an American flag mural as he leaves the farmers market Saturday in downtown Janesville.

People with EBT and SNAP supplemental benefits are still able to use those benefits at the market. Many SNAP and EBT shoppers showed up for opening day, Arthur said.

“For our customers, this is a food source. There are so many people who can come out and get fresh produce and meat,” she said.

“EBT and SNAP customers came out in droves and spent $50 to $100. That was really exciting. They are really happy.”

With virus, US higher education may face existential moment


When Jamie Bolker started teaching composition at MacMurray College in January, she felt she had won the lottery. After sending out more than 140 resumes, she had a tenure-track position in English.

Last month, though, Bolker delivered a dire Twitter announcement: “Welp. MacMurray College is permanently closing ... They were already on the edge and coronavirus was the final nail.”

While the Jacksonville, Illinois, school’s financial troubles were years in the making—fueled by declining enrollment, an inadequate endowment and competition—MacMurray spokesman James Prescott said the challenge of securing funding during or after the economically crippling pandemic helped seal its fate.

The dramatic and widespread fallout from the novel coronavirus has thrown the U.S. higher education system into a state of turmoil with fears that it could transform into an existential moment for the time-honored American tradition of high school graduates heading off to college.

“What every college and university is facing is an immediate cash flow crisis,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. ”We’re dealing with something completely unprecedented in modern history. There is just so much ambiguity how this will continue to evolve.”

Across America, campuses have become ghost towns, graduation ceremonies have been canceled and school administrators watch as the pandemic rips through budgets, costing billions of dollars in refunded room and board. Some students are seeking partial repayment of their tuition, arguing that online classes can’t compare to campus learning. Hiring freezes have been imposed at some schools, and laid-off professors such as Bolker face difficult job prospects.

Colleges, Hartle says, operate very much like businesses: “If there are no customers, there’s no revenue and layoffs become inevitable.”

School budgets will inevitably be slashed, with painful ripples. The University of Arizona, which could lose more than $250 million, recently announced plans for furloughs and pay cuts for almost all its 15,000 employees to save $93 million from mid-May through June 2021.

Endowments have crashed in value with the stock market, and there are worries fall enrollment could plummet. Predictions abound that smaller universities already on the financial brink could permanently close. Even larger universities considered financially healthy worry about potential state budget cuts and don’t know when they will be able to reopen campuses to new and returning students.

Boston University recently warned that students might not return to campus until January and many colleges—including Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley—have already moved summer courses online. Purdue University, meanwhile, hopes to reopen on campus this fall; the Indiana school has a task force exploring strategies, including pre-testing students before they arrive and spreading out classes over times and days to reduce their size.

Writing in The New York Times, Brown University President Christina Paxson said reopening campuses this fall “should be a national priority.” She noted that higher education employs about 3 million people and the 2017-18 school year poured more than $600 billion into the national gross domestic product.

Schools already are facing staggering losses. They’ll have to refund $7.8 billion in room and board for the current school year, according to Hartle’s group, which made its estimate based on Department Education statistics. For the University of Wisconsin, which has 11 campuses, he says that will mean returning $78 million.

That doesn’t include losses that can be easily overlooked. One giant urban university, Hartle says, routinely collects $4 million a month in parking lot revenues.

How the schools rebound is about more than money. Before they reopen, administrators must be confident students will be safe in dormitories, close-quarter settings that Hartle likens to “land-locked cruise ships.” Timing is critical.

Some prospective students have already decided on gap years starting this fall. Colleges worry that enrolled students will forgo returning if the virus prevents reopening classrooms, because students may not want to pay for online education after deciding to shell out heavy costs and rack up debt for on-campus experiences.

And with millions out of work, parents who have lost jobs or seen savings evaporate may reduce the number of families who can afford college.

Some students have seen opportunities simply disappear. Savion Johnson was set to transfer this fall from a junior college in California to Notre Dame de Namur University in the San Francisco Bay Area as a Division 2 basketball recruit.

As the virus spread, Johnson received a text from the basketball coach rescinding his offer. The school, immersed in deep financial problems amid dwindling enrollment, decided to cancel the incoming freshman class and competitive sports as it tries to avert total closure.

“I was more shocked than anything. Blindsided,” said Johnson, who started a new college search in March and tweeted this week that he was “blessed to receive an offer from Benedictine University at Mesa” in suburban Phoenix.

The San Francisco Art Institute, the oldest art college west of the Mississippi, announced in March it won’t accept students for the fall, encouraged students not graduating this year to transfer and warned of staff layoffs. Merger talks with other institutions hit an impasse “in no small measure due to the unanticipated hardships and uncertainty” from COVID-19, President Gordon Knox said.

These developments happened shortly after Moody’s Investor’s Service downgraded its outlook for higher education from stable to negative. It said the financial chaos from the outbreak “could drive states to reallocate funding to other high-need impacted areas, such as health care, reducing available support for public higher education.”

States are “trying to plan in an environment that almost defies planning,” says Joni Finney, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education.

After the Great Recession ended in 2009, colleges and universities shifted more costs to students and their families. Public higher education in 27 states gets more revenue from tuition than from state funding, according to a 2019 report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “My concern is we do it in a way that doesn’t multiply the hurt on low- and middle-income families as we’ve already been doing since 2008,” Finney says.

Robert Zemksy, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, says schools will be working on a tight deadline as critical decisions have to be made by August.

Colleges at greatest risk for closure, he says, tend to be small, rural schools in the Midwest, Great Plains and the Northeast with enrollments of less than 1,000 and without an excess number of applicants. They represent about 10% of schools but just about 2% of enrollment nationwide.

The colleges that might fare best and even increase enrollment if classes resume, he says, are state schools such as the University of Illinois and Michigan State University. “People will be looking for security,” Zemsky said. “They think that no matter what happens, the schools will stay in business.”

The worst-case scenario: Conditions become so bleak that public colleges shut their doors.

Obituaries and death notices for May 3, 2020

Bonnie B. Ahlert

Fralene F. Bennett

Nancy Dickinson

Steven “Steve” Doyle

James C. Ingala

Marlene Ann Larsen

Jerald “Jerry” Smith

Roger J. Wilkinson

Roger Frederick Willing