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COVID cases are on the rise

In the lasts seven days, 351 new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed statewide, up from 156 last week. Another 61 cases are listed as probable. The total number of deaths confirmed to be attributed to the virus sits at 7,408 statewide with two new deaths reported.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the cumulative number of positive cases in Price County is 1,249. New daily confirmed cases reported within Price County as an average over the last days days and rate per 100,000 population sits at 3.2. The county's death toll still sits at seven.

Wisconsinites are still getting vaccinated, but the pace has slowed in recent weeks. Currently 51.5% of the state's residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Just over 49% have received two.

In Price County, percentages are a touch lower, with 47.3% of residents having received at least one dose of the vaccination and 45.5%, or 6,079 people, being fully vaccinated.

The totals are highest in older populations, with 80.6% of those in the county over the age of 65 having received at least one dose of the vaccine. In the newest group approved for the vaccine, 16.2% of 12-15 year olds have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 22.8% of those 16-17 years old have had one.

Gov. Tony Evers this week called for school-aged children to become vaccinated before the start of the 2021-2022 school year. Both school-aged children and those planning to attend in-person classes at a college or university should become vaccinated, he said.

"Getting vaccinated now means we can help make sure our students are back in the classroom and won't have to miss out on in-person classes or extra-curricular activities," Evers said. "The COVID-19 vaccines are the best protection we have against the virus and make it possible for our kids to get back to learning safely and without disruption."

Those who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine after coming into close contact with a confirmed case of the virus. This means parents of fully vaccinated children do not need to worry about their children missing school or extra-curricular activities due to contact with other children who may be COVID-19 positive. In addition, many places around the state, including some schools, are not requiring fully vaccinated people to wear face coverings.

"It is important that we continue to vaccinate everyone who is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines, especially as students, faculty and teachers, and other staff make plans to return to school in the fall," said DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake. "With the recent increase in new cases, and the very real threat of the Delta variant, vaccination remains our best tool for preventing further disruption in our schools and universities throughout the state."

The Pfizer vaccine is currently the only vaccine available to children ages 12-17. That vaccine is available in Price County. For more information, contact the Price County Health Department at 715-339-3045.

Parade horsepower

Democrats take up mill bill

Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill with bi-partisan support earlier this month that would have offered up to $65 million to help two newly formed cooperatives buy the shuttered paper mills in Wisconsin Rapids and Park Falls.

Loggers, truckers, mill owners, land owners and investors are pursuing the cooperative model of mill ownership because they believe a cooperative would be more vested in the longterm financial health of the timber industry than the pursuit of short-term profits.

Evers, who said he supports the cooperatives, objected to the $65 million being designated from 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) because he does not believe the funds can be used for a loan.

However, Republicans countered that the ARPA dollars are intended for COVID relief and both mills were negatively impacted by the pandemic, leading to their closure.

Evers said he would support the legislation if the funding came from general purpose revenue .

"The state is in a strong financial position, sufficient (general purpose revenue) is available, and using state resources would provide greater flexibility on agreement terms and lower the risk to the state," Evers said.

On Monday, Rep. Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield) of the 74th Assembly District, said she and Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Bayfield) of the 25th Senate District, had co-sponsored another bill July 12 that would use the GPR dollars the governor supports.

"And to this date and at this time not a single Republican has signed on to this bill," Meyers said. "We think it is a good compromise to the bill that they introduced that the governor vetoed, because this has general purpose revenue funds attached to it, which is a safer bet right now than using the federal money because we haven't been assured that that money for this project would be an appropriate use."

Meyers was asked why she thought Republicans would support her bill when they refused to even hear an amendment on theirs that would have designated GPR as the source of the dollars.

"I can hope that they will support it if they really want to help the mills in Wisconsin in the forestry industry to thrive and survive," she said. "We put it out there. We need them to support these bills. The only way it's going to make it out of the Assembly or the Senate floor is if we get Republicans behind it. They said they wanted to help by getting this first bill to the floor, their original bill, so I would hope that they would support this bill."

On Monday, Rep. James Edming (R-Glen Flora) of the 87th Assembly District, who co-authored the Republican bill, said he wasn't even aware the Democrats had offered their version.

"I'm not going to make up my mind right now," he said of the proposed legislation. "As I'm talking to you, I have to see it, talk about and caucus and see, you know, what the good and the pluses and all of that are. And then I'll make up my mind."

Edming said he had received much support from loggers and truckers and those associated with the timber industry for his bill, and he believes the cooperative structure, owned by those in the logging industry, is a good way to go with mill ownership because those interest have "skin in the game" to make sure the mills are successful.

Edming's bill would have offered a $50 million loan to the Consolidated Cooperative to purchase the Wisconsin Rapids mill and $15 million loan to the Park Falls Mill Multi-Stakeholder Cooperative for the Park Falls mill. Each of the loans would help the cooperatives buy the mills, improve the infrastructure and upgrade equipment. The Republican bill authorized the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to make the loans on the condition the cooperatives have secured "substantial additional funding" from both "non-state revenue sources" and "a loan from the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands."

Henry Schienebeck of the Great Lakes Timber Professional Association, which helped form the two cooperatives, hopes that the Democrats and Republicans can come together on a compromise to help the timber industry.

"I would hope that the parties involved would be able to come together as a whole and come up with something that could work to help get these jobs back in place," Schienebeck said. "I get both perspectives, but there's got to be some common ground here somewhere where we could sit down as responsible parties and work this thing out."

Phillips schools consider conduct policy

Phillips School Board members dove into the culture wars this month when they considered a new policy limiting what teachers can discuss with students.

The debate began when the board addressed a proposed change to the district's ethics policy. The policy now requires employees to "model good citizenship, integrity, high ethical standards and self-discipline."

But some board members want to revise the policy to say employees "may not censor or prohibit students from expressing their ideas merely because they wish to avoid a controversy or argument on a particular subject."

A revised policy would recognize the rights of students to express their religious and political feelings, and would go on to say, "District employees cannot let their personal beliefs interfere with their obligation to deliver the school's curriculum and they may not hijack the curriculum or use their position as an opportunity to indoctrinate students to their personal beliefs."

The proposed changes sparked considerable debate among board members who ultimately delayed a decision until their next meeting.

Board member Joe Fox was in favor of adopting the new policy, saying the change, "keeps the liberal agenda out of kids' throats."

"Staff are indoctrinating our students," he said. "As one example, a student was told his shirt was too patriotic. I don't know what that means. There's no such thing as being too patriotic."

Other board members balked at the changes and said the original policy held teachers to high standards and allowed administrators to discipline or correct teachers who strayed into pushing their own views.

"No one is against the Constitution," member Paula Houdek said. "We need to keep politics out of our policies."

Board member Hailey Halmstad reminded her colleagues that their job is not to censor anyone and that they needed to give teachers room to do their work.

"We can't forget kids are here to learn. At some point they need to get their schoolwork done. The wording in the new policy leaves it open. Teachers need to be able to control the room and conversation. I'm not suggesting they restrict it, but they should limit it to specific times."

In the end, the members postponed a decision to allow themselves more time to research how other districts had handled similar guidelines.

Dean of students? Board members also wrangled with the problem of how best to address growing discipline and attendance problems at schools.

Fox argued that the district should create a new position for a dean of students who would be responsible for addressing those matters.

"We know we need this," he said. "We've talked about it for three years. Are we going to do it?"

Board member Steve Willet said there's no question that student behavior — especially falling graduation rates — is a problem that the board must address.

"The question is, what does the problem encompass?" he said. "We had attendance issues this year. Possibly these were in part from COVID, but they are worrisome. Same is true with truancy."

Fox said 6-12 Principal Colin Hoogland reported that handling student discipline alone is a full-time job, and a dean of students or second principal could be tasked with that and more duties.

But Houdek cautioned that adding such a position would come with considerable costs.

"The community passed the referendum and asked us to keep expenses down," she said. "Maybe we should take the year and see if two principals in the same building makes sense."

Board President Jon Pesko suggested middle ground.

"Whether the position is for dean of students or middle school principal, we need to see if the budget can handle it," he said.

He pointed to money available until 2024 from the state government but pointed out that the district would have to ensure it could cover it costs after that.

"We know kids are different than they were 10 years ago," he said. "We used to have more principals. We need input from administrators."

Board members again postponed any decision on the issue until they have time to consider and share ideas with the Policy Committee.

In other news, the board made no changes in its plan to have students return for the 2021-22 school year with no mask requirements. They will receive an update on the pandemic and recommended precautions at their next meeting.

The board went into closed session following the meeting to discuss employee compensation requests. The next meeting of the full board is Aug. 16 at 6 p.m.


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