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Stateline Area clerks tout election security, prepare for record tunrout

Election officials on both sides of the state line say they are confident with plans in place for securing ballots amid the massive influx of early voters one week out from the pivotal general election on Nov. 3.

In-person absentee voting in Wisconsin runs through Nov. 1, but hours vary by municipality. In Beloit, the last day to vote in-person via absentee is Oct. 30.

Early voting in Winnebago County, Illinois runs through Nov. 2. The deadline to request an absentee ballot in Wisconsin is Oct. 29 and Nov. 2 in Illinois if requested in-person or Oct. 29 if requested by mail or online.

Grace periods for absentee ballots vary greatly in both states as Wisconsin voters must have ballots to their respective clerk’s office by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, while Illinois residents may have ballots counted 14 days after Nov. 3 if the ballot has a postmark on Election Day.

In Rock County, County Clerk Lisa Tollefson said as of Monday a total of 43,564 absentee ballots have been requested by county residents. That compares to a total of 19,500 absentee ballots that were counted in the 2016 general election.

Tollefson said the county is training backup poll workers should municipalities require additional staff due to workers being sick or having to quarantine due to potential exposure to COVID-19.

“There are so many things we are having to deal with this year that are unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Tollefson said.

In Beloit, Clerk-Treasurer Lori Stottler said her office saw 1,392 voters cast in-person absentee ballots last week, coupled with the clerk’s office issuing 6,821 absentee ballots by mail and receiving back 5,315 absentee ballots.

“That’s an extremely high return rate and we are very happy to see that,” Stottler said.

Stottler stressed that Beloit voters concerned about the status of their absentee ballot can go online to myvote.wi.gov and click on Track My Vote to check on their ballot’s status. When an absentee ballot is received by Stottler’s office it is scanned into the MyVote state registry before being sorted in alphabetical order by voting ward.

Stottler and Tollefson both said they were confident in the security of Wisconsin elections due to the many redundancies in the system should any issues occur, noting that clerk’s have physical copies of ballots along with digital scans of each ballot. On Election Day, results are transmitted via a double-encrypted modem with unique codes to the Rock County clerk’s office.

“Wisconsin takes a lot of pride in securing the voters’ data,” Stottler said.

Tollefson added, “I think we are really secure. We have so many layers to our elections. It’s going to be such a busy day.”

If voters wait to cast in-person ballots, Stottler asked all voters to remain patient and follow polling place COVID-19 safety guidelines. Beloit is offering curbside voting for handicapped individuals or those with potential COVID-19 symptoms.

“We are set up to handle a high volume of people, but we have capacity limits,” Stottler said. “Please be patient as we get people in-and-out.”

In Winnebago County, County Clerk Lori Gummow said her office has received over 20,000 applications from county residents outside of the City Rockford for mail-in ballots. Early voting locations at the Meadow Mart Mall, 6401 N. Second St., in Loves Park and County Administration Building, 404 Elm St., have seen an influx of voters looking to beat Election Day lines, she added.

“We’re seeing a lot of people choose to vote early,” Gummow said. “There are so many people who are registering for the first time and that’s great. Don’t wait until Election Day. I was working at our off-site early voting locations this weekend and the voters were great and very friendly.”

Winnebago County voters outside of the City of Rockford can check the status of their ballot at the county’s website winnebagocountyclerk.com

A common question for Gummow’s office has been whether ballots must be all filled out to be counted. Voters can choose which races to vote for and not voting for any given number of races does not disqualify a ballot.

All results issued on Election Night are unofficial. With the expected record turnout, races may take longer than normal to be reported.

“This is 2020,” Gummow said in response to a question regarding potential voter turnout. “Nothing has remained the same and we can’t predict anything this year.”

Turner officials urge continued following of safety protocols as schools reopen

TOWN OF BELOIT — As students in the Beloit Turner School District returned to in-person classes Monday, school officials were encouraging families to continue to follow safety precautions while also sharing their concerns about possible future school closures if staffing shortages arise.

On Oct. 8, it was announced all four Turner school buildings would close for two weeks and instruction would be provided to students online due to two COVID-19 cases being discovered. School officials said they are restarting in-person classes with safety in mind.

“People want to have their kids in school, but you have to be cautious,” said Turner school board member Kristie Petitt. “We all have to do our part. I think we’re doing really well at keeping up the best we can.”

In an email to families Thursday, Superintendent Dennis McCarthy urged parents to continue to follow safety protocols while also warning about COVID-19 fatigue and sharing his concerns about staffing shortages as quarantine situations develop.

“We are facing some very difficult challenges in our mission to provide a balance of in-person and virtual learning. We are committed to both models, but our commitment is strengthened by the safety protocols of families and community members outside of our walls as well,” McCarthy wrote.

In the letter to parents, McCarthy urged community members to keep sick children at home and to contact the school nurse if a student shows coronavirus symptoms or has been around someone who is symptomatic, has tested positive or is awaiting test results.

Additionally, McCarthy told families they must continue to wear a mask, wash hands frequently and maintain social distance.

McCarthy wrote that the district has worked closely with the Rock County Health Department to keep schools operational. But he warned future shifts to all-virtual learning could occur if evidence of spread in school buildings is found, if safety measures are ignored leading to multiple “close contacts,” if a wide scale outbreak happens or due to staffing shortages related to necessary 14-day quarantine orders.

“Our single biggest challenge to date has been maintaining adequate staffing levels. While we are not seeing cases of spread in our building operations (due to our safety protocols), there are a number of situations arising outside of our schools that have resulted in staff being deemed close contacts to known positive cases of COVID-19,” McCarthy wrote.

Key areas of concern regarding staffing shortages involve teachers and bus drivers.

McCarthy added, “While in some situations our teachers can teach virtually from home to an extent, we are running into very concerning levels of on-site supervision of our students. If we cannot supervise students, we cannot perform on-site functions. The number of quarantine situations of our staff have been on the rise and parallel to the issues we are seeing in our communities.”

Replying to an emailed question from the Beloit Daily News on Monday, McCarthy wrote that schools in Rock County and nationwide all continue to be affected by staffing availability issues, which is a “number one concern” related to COVID-19 safety protocols.

“It is inevitable given the COVID numbers in Rock County and beyond. This is nothing new. We are simply letting our families know they need to be prepared if issues arise and how we will deal with those issues,” McCarthy wrote.

Petitt said while she believes the Turner district has been handling its school reopening procedures very well, rising case numbers in the area carry the risk of creating a “snowball effect” and result in staffing shortages as people enter quarantine.

Petitt added that she feels administrators in the Turner district have “done a fantastic job” at continuing to keep families and board members in the loop. She said everyone involved must make tough decisions to ensure the continued safety of students, parents and staff as the district works to still offer in-person learning.

School Board Member Norm Jacobs echoed Petitt’s concern about staffing shortages going forward, but he also added that he believes district administrators have offered consistent communication and guidance.

Jacobs said the Turner district’s Road to Reopening model is “very thorough” and that families and teachers have been following guidelines well so far.

As coronavirus cases continue to spike in hotspots across the Midwestern U.S. and elsewhere, Jacobs said all community members must remain steadfast in following health and safety protocols.

While he said it is difficult to predict how the rest of the school year will play out, Jacobs said he remains hopeful that families and teachers will continue putting safe education first.

“Things are going as well as they can be for the district as a whole right now,” Jacobs said.

Board President John Turner said he feels the district’s Road to Reopening plan is both effective and safe.

“Our administration and staff have developed a hybrid cohort model that is effectively educating our students in the safest manner possible without going all virtual,” Turner said.

However, Turner added, the recent two-week closure of local schools could have been avoided if district protocols were followed more closely.

“The spike in positive cases in our community is definitely a concern. The district is adhering closely to Rock County Health Department guidelines and recommendations,” Turner said.

Trick or treat hours set in some places, not in others

Trick or Treat hours have been announced by some area communities while other communities have decided not to set specific hours for the annual tradition due to health concern due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The City of Beloit, Town of Beloit and Village of Clinton have not set Trick or Treat hours this year. A Clinton village employee said the village does not have the authority to set trick or treat hours and the Town of Turtle usually does not set Trick or Treat hours, but adheres to hours set by the City of Beloit, according to the Haunted Wisconsin website.

Other communities in the Stateline Area have set Trick or Treat hours, but some have reduced the time for trick or treating and have advised children and families to take special precautions recommended by the CDC.

Area trick or treat hours on Oct. 31 include:

- Janesville, 5:30—7:30 p.m.

- Orfordville, 4—7 p.m.

- South Beloit, 4:30—6 p.m.

- Rockton, 5—7 p.m.

- Roscoe, 3—6 p.m.

Although some communities have not set trick or treat hours, some residents plan to hand out treats on Halloween anyway. In Beloit some residents have set up a Halloween in Beloit Facebook page which lets residents know which houses in certain neighborhoods will be distributing treats on Halloween. Residents who are participating in handing out treats are asked to place a purple pumpkin at their front door, so children will know where to go for treats.

Area communities are recommending those who plan to hand out treats this Halloween, follow CDC recommendations to stay safe. Recommendations include:

- Avoid direct contact with trick or treaters

- Distribute treats outside your home if possible

- Set up a station to give out treats that are individually bagged

- Wash your hands before handling treats

- Wear a face covering.

For more information, go to the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays/halloween.html.