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De Soto High School football coach Ev Wick enters a new season with a very limited roster and 24-year WIAA playoff streak on the line.

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90 new cases in La Crosse County; Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative to factor university case counts in weekly recommendation

La Crosse County recorded 90 new confirmed COVID-19 cases with a 67.16% positivity rate Tuesday, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The county has reported at least 90 new cases in three of the past four days while averaging 76.86 new cases per day during the past seven days. That figure has more than tripled from a week ago (21.29).

Total confirmed cases are up to 1,889, which grows to 2,018 when including probable cases.

The seven- and 14-day positivity rates, both of which have now been above 20% for three days in a row, jumped again Tuesday.

The seven-day rate increased to 40.70%, up from 37.38% on Monday and 15.83% a week ago. The 14-day rate increased to 30.36%, up from 26.69% on Monday and 14.79% a week ago.

Total positivity is up to 7.71%, and total deaths remained at two.

The Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative emphasizes that daily case numbers are not necessarily representative of community risk level, as numbers fluctuate based on how many test results came back on a given day, testing supply and other factors.

The Collaborative suggests looking at the seven-day rolling average, updated on its website on Wednesday afternoons, for a more accurate depiction of the local pandemic status.

College update

Western Technical College launched its COVID-19 dashboard Monday. The school reported five total active cases, all students and all at the La Crosse campus. Of those cases, three are new this week and two are in isolation in the residence hall.

Western says that it will update its dashboard on Wednesdays each week.

Viterbo had 63 confirmed active student cases as of Monday.

UW-La Crosse, which reports previous day totals, recorded a total of 29 tests — five from PCR tests and 24 from antigen tests — on Monday. Positivity for Monday’s PCR tests was 71.43%, while the rate for the antigen tests was 19.51%.

Response to UW-L dorm quarantine

Earlier this week, due to a high number of positive COVID-19 tests among students, UW-L officials issued a two-week shelter-in-place mandate for all on-campus residences, as well as a temporary shift to online classes and the closure of campus facilities.

Maggie Smith

The decision has left some students and parents questioning whether the decision was too extreme, and the Tribune reached out to Maggie Smith, public health information officer, for the La Crosse County Health Department’s perspective on the university’s response.

“The percent positive test numbers and recent increase in cases is concerning,” Smith says. “We know that students are being tested on campus, and also at our local community testing sites and health systems. As our case data page on our website indicates, the 20-29 year old age group has seen the largest increase in cases in recent days and weeks. The impacts to our community from this increase in cases can be significant, and we do not want to see these numbers continue to increase.”

The UW-L Covid-19 dashboard counts only those students tested at the campus Student Health Center, and percent positive cases vary widely dependent on the number of tests administered on a given day. However, the number of available “isolation” spaces available is filling up rapidly, with 75% (98 out of 130) occupied as of Monday.

“A two-week quarantine can be one tool to help reduce contact with other community members and help to slow the spread of COVID-19, as we do continue to see an increase in cases in this population,” Smith says. “We do have a team that is regularly connecting with all college campuses in La Crosse County.”

The university also administers two types of tests: Antigen, which have less accurate but quicker results, and PCR, the converse. If a student receives both tests, both are included in the count, meaning the number of positive tests will be higher than the number of confirmed cases, the latter which is used to inform the daily percent positive.

“This percentage is in no way intended to represent the ratio of positive cases compared to the full student body or campus community. It reflects testing administered to both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals,” UW-L states.

The numbers from the university, Smith says, are an informative tool, though the Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative data “provides an overall picture of what is happening with COVID-19 countywide. Each tool plays an important role in educating our community about what is happening with COVID-19 — both on the UWL campus and community-wide.”

The Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative, Smith says, will take the university case numbers into account when providing community guidance and recommendations when the case data, demographics and metrics are updated Wednesday afternoon.

The La Crosse County Health Department reminds residents to wear fabric face masks when in public, practice physical distancing and to stay home when possible.

Those with any potential symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, chills, runny nose, congestion, muscle or body aches, cough, tiredness, headache, new loss of taste or smell, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, are asked to stay home and contact their provider for testing.

Databank: Learn more about COVID-19 and its spread


Wisconsin lags nation in education spending, as COVID-19 fallout portends tough choices

Between 2002 and 2018, Wisconsin dropped from ranking 12th among all states in how much it spent per-pupil on public K-12 schools, to ranking 24th, according to census data analyzed in a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The report is one in a series that have sketched out the financial picture of Wisconsin schools as they gear up for an unusual budget year.

In 2012, Wisconsin’s K-12 spending dropped by 6.2% in a single year, and its year-over-year increases in how much the state spent per-pupil on public school slowed. By 2015, that slowdown was enough to put it behind the country as a whole, whereas prior to 2012 its per-pupil spending had been increasing faster than in the country as a whole.

According to the report, Wisconsin’s spending per-pupil lagged three of its four neighboring states, only spending more per-pupil than Iowa, which ranked 28th.

Anne Chapman, the researcher who compiled the report, noted that per-pupil spending mirrored state spending on benefits, which also slowed after Act 10 required teachers and other school employees to contribute more to their pension and health insurance.

“You see the exact same thing, where, relative to the country, Wisconsin’s spending is rising, and then in 2012, it goes down considerably, and then it keeps going down until about 2015, 2016, (when) the U.S. actually overtakes Wisconsin in terms of benefits spending,” she said.

With teacher salaries, by contrast, Wisconsin lagged the country during the whole period the Wisconsin Policy Forum examined.

Chapman said that Act 10 spending cuts could account for some of the downward trend in per-pupil spending on schools, but not all.

She also said the reduction in benefits spending, coupled with slow growth in teacher salaries, could complicate districts’ ability to retain teachers at a time when many are concerned that reopening plans aren’t taking their safety seriously enough.

‘We’re just going to have to work our way through this’

The state’s per-pupil spending is even more of a key indicator in Wisconsin than in some other states. More than half of Wisconsin’s per-pupil school spending comes from state money, making it less reliant on federal funding than many other states.

Even as Wisconsin school districts have been girding themselves for tough budget years ahead, there has been some good news. The latest out of the Wisconsin Legislature seems to indicate that lawmakers won’t have to go back into its current biennial budget and make cuts — those can wait until the next biennium. That’s particularly good news for schools, which were slated to get the bigger portion of their two-year per-pupil increases in school spending in the second year of the biennium.

“The idea that they might actually have to cut in this budget year, that’s likely not going to happen now,” said Chapman. “So that’s good. The question will be how the recession that we’re in, the costs associated with COVID, and the uncertainty surrounding any kind of federal assistance, how will this all break down?”

Tom Owens, director of business services at Stevens Point Area Schools, has been a school business manager since 1978, weathering the budget complications that came with several recessions, as well as 2010’s Act 10 legislation.

“I tell all my colleagues we have to, number one, muddle through, and number two, remember the root word of the word ‘muddle,’ and just anticipate that there’s going to be a lot of mud, and a lot of confusion, and we’re just going to have to work our way through this and just figure it out,” he said.

Owens said he’s used to a certain amount of uncertainty when he lays out the budget for his district. That initial district-level process happens over the summer. On the third Friday in September, districts count how many students are enrolled and in class, and then in October, revise their budgets based on what they’ll get from the state.

“We are several months into our school budget, school year before we even get a lot of the data and are able to even set our levies, so we’re not unfamiliar with having to deal with coming from behind or having to figure things out,” he said. “This, obviously, is a stellar year for that opportunity. A lot of things are very unpredictable and unknown.”

Part of the unpredictability comes from the side effects of adapting to not just a recession, but the demands of a pandemic. Owens said he’s expecting more spending on personal protective equipment, on overtime, and on delivery costs for food, for example, but also savings in travel, as COVID-19 has moved meetings and other gatherings virtual.

“Any budget is always wrong, it’s just a matter of degree,” he said, laughing, “but the budget this year, it’s really going to be an interesting challenge for it to come relatively within certain margins of error.”

“The idea that they might actually have to cut in this budget year, that’s likely not going to happen now. So that’s good.” Anne Chapman, researcher who compiled report

Trump, DeVos raise school choice in appeal to parents

As millions of American children start the school year online, the Trump administration is hoping to convert their parents’ frustration and anger into newfound support for school choice policies that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long championed but struggled to advance nationally.

DeVos and President Donald Trump have repeatedly invoked school choice as the solution to parents’ woes. If public schools fail to open, they say, parents should get a cut of the district’s federal funding to send their children to private schools or for home schooling, learning pods or other options that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic.

For Trump, it’s seen as a potential lifeline to Black and Hispanic voters, who are more likely to support vouchers and other school choice options, polls have found. Speaking at the White House in July, Trump declared that “there is nothing that the African American community wants more than school choice.” He has also used the issue as a political weapon against Democratic opponent Joe Biden, who supports stricter accountability measures for charter schools.

For DeVos, however, the pandemic offers a new chance to win support for policies she has spent her career promoting. Before taking office, she spent decades as an advocate for charter schools and voucher programs in Michigan and elsewhere. As secretary, she has been credited with helping states expand programs but has struggled to make headway on federal legislation.

Since last year, she has been calling for a $5 billion federal tax credit to support scholarships that help students attend private schools or other education alternatives. The idea was included in Senate Republicans’ latest relief bill, which was voted down Thursday.

DeVos’ critics accuse her of exploiting a public health crisis to pursue her political agenda. But she says she’s fighting to give families access to a wider array of options as many districts remain online.

“Parents are increasingly demanding it,” DeVos said in an interview. “It’s becoming ever more evident that parents and students need to have more choices. I would argue that it is the ideal time to be talking about this more widely. And in fact, we are.”

In nearly every public appearance she has made during the pandemic, DeVos has used the spotlight to draw attention to school choice. On Twitter, she has highlighted stories of families calling for options beyond their local public schools. And even as schools of all type suffer financially as a result of the pandemic, DeVos has emphasized the struggles of private, religious schools.

Her focus on school choice has drawn sharp opposition from Democrats and public school leaders. In July, DeVos issued a rule that sought to shift millions of dollars in federal virus relief from public schools to private schools. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress said the rule conflicted with the intent of the funding bill, and several states vowed to ignore it. This month a federal judge appointed by Trump struck down the rule, saying DeVos overstepped her powers.

DeVos also drew criticism for using $180 million in relief aid to create new “microgrants” that families could use to send students to private schools, among other purposes. At the same time, she has publicly assailed some public schools that decided to start the school year primarily or entirely online. In-person instruction should be available to any family that wants it, DeVos has said, and anything short of that fails students and taxpayers.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said DeVos has shown an “overwhelming” preference for private schools amid the pandemic, while doing little to help public schools reopen safely. “She has at every opportunity used all of her discretion to divert money from the public schools, particularly low-income students in public schools, to help fund private schools,” Scott said.

DeVos, however, said she’s working closely with governors and state education chiefs and has yet to hear a complaint from them. Some public school districts have called on DeVos to provide clearer guidance and to push for more funding. She calls claims that she hasn’t done enough “hand wringing” and “excuse making.”

“There’s a notion that we had to have some dictate from the federal level about what schools have to do,” DeVos said. “It’s just a fallacy. And I’m afraid in many cases, it is an excuse for inaction.”

Her response has frustrated some superintendents who say DeVos told schools to reopen but left them to figure out how. She won praise for granting schools flexibility with federal rules, but many school chiefs take issue with her public admonishments and her renewed calls for school choice.

“Choice is important, but so is safety,” said Kristi Wilson, president of AASA, a national superintendent’s association. “We appreciate the flexibility, but what we don’t want is more divisiveness and more rhetoric.”

DeVos’ allies say she’s being unfairly maligned. Florida school chief Richard Corcoran said DeVos has granted every request for flexibility the state has submitted. He said DeVos is “dead right” to criticize schools that kept classes online.

And supporters of school choice say DeVos is right to press for the issue now. Once an abstract debate for many families, choice has suddenly became a personal issue for parents across the country considering options to local schools remaining online, backers say.

“There is nothing that the African American community wants more than school choice.” President Trump