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Alumni, families disappointed about 2020 girls camp cancellation

Mina Pillsbury looked forward to applying for a counselor position at the UW-Stout Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer for Girls camp.

Pillsbury, a high school freshman in Oshkosh who plans to study forensic science in college, attended the five-day camp in 2017 and enjoyed the mix of recreational activities and unique learning opportunities.

This year marked the first time she qualified to work as a junior counselor and assist campers, but Pillsbury and many girls like her will have to wait at least one year for that chance. The STEPS camp was canceled this year after a complaint filed in 2019 through the Office of Civil Rights regarding the single-sex nature of the camp.

The program started hosting annual camps in 1997 and encourages middle-schoolers to learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the UW-Stout campus. It hosted four separate groups of girls for five days at a time the summer before their seventh grade and provided hands-on activities taught by professors and industry professionals.

The camp’s cancellation means more than 100 middle school girls won’t have the opportunity this summer to learn from professors and industry professionals, and it also results in a missed chance for STEPS alumni to return and work at the camp.

“We are not the only institution across the United States facing this type of challenge, but that does not make this decision any less painful,” Doug Mell, UW-Stout executive director of communications and external relations, wrote in a statement Wednesday to the Leader-Telegram.

Indeed, colleges including Boston University, the University of Cincinnati and Vermont Technical College are facing similar OCR complaints for single-sex programs. UW-Eau Claire has a one-day girls’ mathematics event and several single-sex sports camps but has not had any formal complaints regarding those programs dating back to at least fall 2006, according to the university’s affirmative action director Teresa O’Halloran.

Most people became aware of the cancellation when the STEPS program posted a message “with a heavy heart” Jan. 22 on its Facebook page announcing the camp will not be offered this summer due to the ongoing litigation. The Facebook status also noted that if a camp occurs in 2021, it will be open to girls entering seventh grade and eighth grade in order to make up for the 2020 cancellation.

Alumni and parents of campers largely expressed shock, sadness and disappointment upon hearing the news.

Pillsbury’s mother Samara Hamzé called it “heartbreaking” that other students won’t have the opportunity afforded to her daughter for at least a year. She said it was nice for middle school girls to be mentored by women in a more comfortable setting and see themselves in leadership roles.

Hamzé stressed the importance of having access to new resources and practicing new skills “in a fun, nonjudgmental environment.”

Sarah Brenizer said the camp offered a less intimidating atmosphere for her daughter to try activities thought of as traditionally masculine, like rock climbing.

Brenizer thought the OCR complaint was “absurd” and doesn’t see the problem with single-sex camps like STEPS.

“There’s always going to be programs for boys (and) there’s always going to be programs for girls,” Brenizer said.

Her daughter Lexi Brenizer, a seventh-grader in Fredric, attended the camp in 2019. She enjoyed meeting new people and working on wiring for the Bugbot, an obstacle-avoiding robot that every camper constructed since 2013.

Like most alumni, Lexi Brenizer said the camp increased her interest in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math.

Ava Busch-Manske, an eighth-grader from Saint Anthony Village, Minn., was a camper in 2018. She is interested in studying electrical engineering in the future and enjoyed soldering wires for the Bugbot. Pillsbury said soldering was one of the best parts as well.

Busch-Manske appreciated the camp because it “levels the playing field” for girls interested in STEM careers. She enjoyed listening to different perspectives offered by counselors and instructors.

As a human resources professional, her mother Dawn Busch knew the difficulty involved in recruiting women engineers and wanted to encourage her daughter’s interests. Busch felt “disgusted” after hearing about the OCR complaint and said it is important for middle school girls to see women working in STEM careers because it lets them know they can pursue similar positions.

If the camp resumes, Busch-Manske will consider returning as a junior counselor.

The Brenizers are crossing their fingers that the STEPS program will be up and running again by the time Lexi Brenizer is eligible to be a junior counselor in two years. Sarah Brenizer also has two younger daughters who she hopes will have the opportunity to attend the camp a few years in the future.

Time will tell.

Bill would raise retirement age for some public workers

MADISON — A bill meant to alleviate teacher shortages in Wisconsin schools comes with a proposal to raise the minimum retirement age for participants in the Wisconsin Retirement System by nearly five years, a pill that may be too hard to swallow for some public employees.

The bill by Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, would allow retired teachers or other former employees participating in the Wisconsin Retirement System to be rehired and work full time for a WRS employer for up to three years and still collect their pension payments.

But the bill comes with a catch that its authors argue would account for the change and ensure the continued integrity of the Wisconsin Retirement System: Raising the minimum retirement age at which a participant may begin collecting benefits from 55 to 59½. The change would only affect employees younger than 40 at the time the bill becomes law, and would also exclude protective service occupations, such as police officers and firefighters.

The Wisconsin Retirement System provides retirement, disability and death benefits to all state employees and most local government employees in Wisconsin.

Felzkowski and Stroebel say the bill would make it easier for retired teachers to fill workforce shortages in local school districts in order to meet the needs of students. Since 2009-10, the number of Wisconsin teachers has declined by 1,338, or 2.2%, while the number of public school students over the same time frame decreased by 2,269, or 0.5%, according to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“While I think the teacher shortage has pushed our districts toward really creative solutions, we are reaching a tipping point where even these innovations will not be able to shield a district from feeling the effects of these shortages down the road,” Felzkowski said. “One of the best resources to address this issue is at our fingertips — retired educators.”

Changes to prevent so-called “double-dipping” in the 2013 state budget prohibited collecting a WRS pension if the employee worked more than two-thirds of full-time hours at a WRS participating employer.

The bill, which received a public hearing in Assembly and Senate committees Wednesday, received largely negative input from public employee unions and most education organizations. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards and Washington County are the only groups that have registered in support of the bill, which is supported by several Republicans and just one Democrat, Rep. LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee.

Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, vice president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents public education employees, criticized the bill authors’ decision to exempt protective service employees — a male-dominated profession — while raising the minimum retirement age for the primarily female teaching workforce.

While Wirtz-Olsen said hiring retired teachers is one way to address the teacher shortage, it’s only a short-term solution. She said the bill’s proposal to raise the minimum retirement age isn’t necessary and devalues educators.

“Carving out educators as a workforce and shouldering them with additional barriers because they chose to teach children will not attract and keep qualified teachers in our classroom,” Wirtz-Olsen said.

Democrats on the committee shared those concerns.

“You’re saying that you’re concerned about our workforce problems today, so you want to stop people from retiring 20 years from now?” asked Rep. Tip McGuire, D-Kenosha.

A spokeman for Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.

The bill’s authors say raising the retirement age makes sense given people are living and working longer, and that it helps provide parity with private-sector employees. They also say raising the retirement age could lower the needed contributions to the retirement fund.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards says the proposal could provide a small way for districts to alleviate teacher shortages. Although the organization supports the measure, it says other changes are needed, such as increasing teacher salaries, improving health benefits or reworking family leave policies, among other things, which may not be immediately possible due to budget constraints.

“In a state facing worker shortages generally, it makes no sense to have qualified teachers sitting idle when teachers are needed to fill positions across the state,” WASB executive director John Ashley said in a statement.

Global emergency declared over virus

GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization declared the outbreak sparked by a new virus in China that has spread to more than a dozen countries as a global emergency Thursday after the number of cases spiked more than tenfold in a week.

The U.N. health agency defines an international emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response.

China first informed WHO about cases of the new virus in late December. To date, China has reported more than 7,800 cases including 170 deaths. Eighteen other countries have since reported cases, as scientists race to understand how exactly the virus is spreading and how severe it is.

Experts say there is significant evidence the virus is spreading among people in China and have noted with concern instances in other countries — including the United States, France, Japan, Germany, Canada, South Korea and Vietnam — where there have also been isolated cases of human-to-human transmission.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted the worrisome spread of the virus between people outside China.

“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries,” he said. “Our greatest concern is the potential for this virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems which are ill-prepared to deal with it.”

“This declaration is not a vote of non-confidence in China,” he said. “On the contrary, WHO continues to have the confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”

A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater money and resources, but may also prompt nervous governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. The announcement also imposes more disease reporting requirements on countries.

The United States and South Korea confirmed their first cases of person-to-person spread of the virus. The man in the U.S. is married to a 60-year-old Chicago woman who got sick from the virus after she returned from a trip to Wuhan, the Chinese city that is the epicenter of the outbreak.

The case in South Korea was a 56-year-old man who had contact with a patient who was diagnosed with the new virus earlier.

In the wake of numerous airlines canceling flights to China and businesses including Starbucks and McDonald’s temporarily closing hundreds of shops, Tedros said WHO was not recommending limiting travel or trade to China.

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he said. He added that Chinese President Xi Jinping had committed to help stop the spread of the virus beyond its borders.

“During my discussion with the president and other officials, they’re willing to support countries with weaker health systems with whatever is possible,” Tedros said.

On Thursday, France confirmed that a doctor who was in contact with a patient with the new virus later became infected himself. The doctor is now being treated in an isolated room at a Paris hospital. Outbreak specialists worry that the spread of new viruses from patients to health workers can signal the virus is becoming adapted to human transmission.

China raised the death toll to 170 on Thursday, and more countries reported infections, including some spread locally, as foreign evacuees from China’s worst-hit region returned home to medical tests and even isolation.

Russia announced it was closing its 2,600-mile border with China, joining Mongolia and North Korea in barring crossings to guard against a new viral outbreak. It had been de facto closed because of the Lunar New Year holiday, but Russian authorities said the closure would be extended until March 1.

Although scientists expect to see limited transmission of the virus between people with close contact, like within families, the instances of spread to people who may have had less exposure to the virus in Japan and Germany is worrying.

In Japan, a man in his 60s caught the virus after working as a bus driver for two tour groups from Wuhan. In Germany, a man in his 30s was sickened after a Chinese colleague from Shanghai, whose parents had recently visited from Wuhan, came to his office for a business meeting. Four other workers later became infected. The woman had shown no symptoms of the virus until her flight back to China.

“That’s the kind of transmission chain that we don’t want to see,” said Marion Koopmans, an infectious diseases specialist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and a member of WHO’s emergency committee.

Koopmans said more information was needed about how the virus was spread in these instances and whether it meant the virus was more infectious than previously thought or if there was something unusual in those circumstances.

Mark Harris, a professor of virology at Leeds University, said it appears that the spread of the virus among people is probably easier than initially presumed.

“If transmission between humans was difficult, then the numbers would have plateaued,” he said. Harris said the limited amount of virus spread beyond China suggested the outbreak could still be contained, but that if people are spreading the disease before they show symptoms — as some Chinese politicians and researchers have suggested — that could compromise control efforts.

The new virus has now infected more people in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a cousin of the new virus. Both are from the coronavirus family, which also includes those that can cause the common cold.

The latest figures for mainland China show an increase of 38 deaths and 1,737 cases for a total of 7,736 confirmed cases. Of the new deaths, 37 were in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and one was in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Outside China, there are 82 infections in 18 countries, according to WHO.

China extended its Lunar New Year holiday to Sunday to try to keep people home, but the wave of returning travelers could potentially cause the virus to spread further.

China has been largely praised for a swift and effective response to the outbreak, although questions have been raised about the police suppression of what were early on considered mere rumors — a reflection of the one-party Communist state’s determination to maintain a monopoly on information in spite of smart phones and social media.

That stands in stark contrast to the initial response to SARS, when medical reports were hidden as state secrets. The delayed response was blamed for allowing the disease to spread worldwide, killing around 800 people.

Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Britain’s Wellcome Trust, welcomed WHO’s emergency declaration.

“This virus has spread at unprecedented scale and speed, with cases passing between people in multiple countries across the world,” he said in a statement. “It is also a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are to epidemics of infectious diseases known and unknown.”