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COVID on their minds
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EAU CLAIRE — Like many other student researchers at UW-Eau Claire, Maggie Westerland was in the midst of a long-term study when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

She and other psychology students had gathered some information on how different parts of the human brain react to smartphone screen time, but had much more to do when their in-person work was suddenly halted last spring.

“We had three participants worth of data at the time we were locked down,” Westerland said.

Frustrated they could no longer do the lab work with volunteers that their study required, the research team regrouped online in a “virtual lab table” to discuss their next moves.

“The big elephant in the room was COVID,” Westerland said.

The virus that upended their college experience became their new subject, totally changing their project and causing them to do research that didn’t require them to be face-to-face with people.

“It taught us a lot about adapting and surveys,” said Westerland, a senior who will graduate this semester with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.

Many other teams of students under the mentorship of university faculty did similar pivots away from their prior research topics to instead examine the many facets of COVID-19 and its effects on people.

Nursing majors studied vaccination efforts in local ethnic minority populations as well as battle fatigue among health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. Communication majors analyzed the university’s own messages to students about COVID-19 to gauge how effective they were. Other studies touched on distance learning, attitudes on public health precautions and methods to give early warnings when coronavirus were on the rise.

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Students and the professors overseeing their work showed their research projects this week through online presentations at the university’s annual Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity.

Catherine Chan, executive director of UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, noticed the bounty of studies that examined the pandemic.

“It’s not surprising that our students and staff have risen to the challenge,” she said.

The campus has a longstanding history in engaging in topics affecting the broader community, Chan said, which is often seen in the presentations at CERCA.

Mathematics professor Jessica Kraker and her student, Jessica Lim, began working on a research project in September with the goal of forecasting when the pandemic would increase the need for more hospital beds.

The duo used numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported on a state website along with information on how likely people of different ages are to need hospitalization for treating coronavirus.

“The old age group has higher hospitalizations compared to the young age group,” Lin noted.

Taking multiple other factors into consideration, the complicated mathematical formula they created can be used to forecast a range of beds needed in the near future.

Kraker said she began crunching numbers on the pandemic when it started last spring, putting her math expertise to work in some ways as a coping skill.

“I designed this because there were specific questions that frankly affected me personally,” she said.

Concerns for her family, students and others compelled her to see if there was some way for her to use her math skills to spot patterns in how the virus was affecting the community.

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She wasn’t alone as researchers with the university’s Watershed Institute also sought ways to give earlier warnings about the coronavirus.

Inspired by a report from the University of Arizona on testing wastewater for coronavirus, professor Crispin Pierce sought to do a similar study of what went down the drains at UW-Eau Claire.

When funding came this February, his students began taking weekly samples of wastewater as it left three dormitories and an off-campus building. Then those samples were sent to the State Laboratory of Hygiene to test for evidence of the virus.

“The idea is we’d see COVID RNA in the wastewater a week before we’d see symptoms,” Pierce said.

This is expected to provide advance notice of an outbreak as people aren’t likely to get themselves tested unless they feel ill.

The samples so far have shown concentrations of COVID below detectable levels, but that does fit with the very low case count seen at UW-Eau Claire during the spring semester.

However, Pierce does acknowledge that sampling just once a day likely only tested a few students while a sample collected throughout a day would encompass more residents of dormitories. To accomplish that more thorough sampling, the state lab provided equipment last week to the university for the ongoing research project.

While the methods are still being revised to improve accuracy, Pierce said wastewater sampling is seen as a noninvasive way to gauge health problems in a population and has been around since it was employed in the 1950s to test for polio.

Pierce also noted that the experiment gives his students important practice with safety and decontamination procedures they need to know for careers in environmental public health.

“It prepares my students for when they truly will be in an infectious situation,” he said.

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Other research teams weren’t trying to track the virus, but examine how people reacted differently to life during a pandemic.

Overseen by David Leland, associate professor of psychology, six students including Westerland studied COVID-19 related behaviors and opinions.

At the end of the fall semester, they surveyed 204 UW-Eau Claire students about their political leanings and opinions on wearing masks and partying during the pandemic.

“This was in the height of it all,” Westerland noted.

At this time the university had switched to online-only classes in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases that were straining the capacity of local hospitals.

Though the respondents were generally more liberal — 106 identified as Democrats, 52 as Republicans and 46 were unaffiliated or third-party backers — Leland found the overall results were in line with similar studies done elsewhere.

“Those who were more conservative were partying more frequently,” he said of the local survey results.

Meanwhile people who identified themselves as liberal were more supportive of wearing face masks and not engaging in large gatherings.

Another finding in their research was that conservative students were more likely to view wearing masks as a political stance, while that belief was not as common among liberals.

• • •

Though Westerland missed out on studying brain activity with volunteers in the lab this year, she said the sudden shift in her project’s focus educated her on being adaptable to changing conditions.

“It taught our whole lab group a lesson about research,” she said.

Chan acknowledged that was the case for many teams of students and mentors who were forced by the pandemic to alter plans.

“It certainly poses some challenges and limitations,” she said. “It causes the research team to change their game plan at the last minute.”

But despite those hurdles, Chan said the volume of projects submitted for CERCA did not diminish this year.

“Even the pandemic can’t stop them from doing their work,” she said.

A hero of mine, a hero of many
  • Updated

On March 26, 2021, this newspaper published an obituary for a man named Douglas Smith. The obituary wasn’t especially long and may or may not have been of note to you, excepting perhaps that in one of the accompanying photos of a young Smith, he was wearing a professional baseball uniform. But I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Douglas Smith, who was my fifth-grade teacher at Manz Elementary School here in Eau Claire.

Mr. Smith was a hero. A bona fide hero. A larger-than-life man who may have hit the longest home-run in Carson Park history, who called Bob Uecker a friend, who could remember a young Hank Aaron in the batting cage, who lived a life not unlike the fictional character of Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, but who most importantly gave all that he had to the youth of the Chippewa Valley. The reverberations of his actions will be felt for generations to come. He was the kind of teacher who had the charisma and compassion to alter the path of his students’ lives, and I am one such person.

I grew up in a family of readers. My Mom, for example, reads hundreds of books every year and if a love of reading is in any way a genetic trait, then I have her to thank. Our home was always full of books, and I don’t doubt that even if I hadn’t had Mr. Smith as a teacher, I would still be the sort of person who idolizes authors and worships books.

But I’m not sure that I would have become a writer without Mr. Smith.

Every year, Doug Smith assigned his students the task of researching the westward migration of European settlers across the American frontier in the late 19th century. Then, research complete, students were tasked with writing a fictitious account of that exodus along the Oregon or Santa Fe trails. By the end of my fifth-grade year, I’d written roughly 120 pages, the equivalent of a short novel.

Even now, after publishing five books, that assignment for Mr. Smith remains one of the longest pieces I’ve ever written. And in finishing that project I learned things far beyond the scope of standardized testing. I learned the satisfaction of completing a long project, dedication, determination and resolve.

I still remember a day in which I upset Mr. Smith, and it wasn’t even my fault. The boy sitting ahead of me (let’s call him Zach) was talking out of turn during class, but Mr. Smith mistakenly thought it was me.

“Mister Butler!” he said sternly. “Out in the hallway!”

I was mortified. I thought of Mr. Smith in the rarefied air of a beloved grandfather who also happened to be a biblical prophet and a most favored professional athlete. I hung off his every word and asked him advice, any chance I could, as if he were an oracle. And now, I had angered him. I felt my face grow hot with sadness and embarrassment. Later, I apologized to him and in doing so, knew that truly, I could never disappoint him, that he knew how much I revered him, and that I was a good boy, and when I tell you that now, thinking of that moment, I am completely devastated, and aware that this community may never know another teacher of his mettle and grace.

I visited with Mr. Smith and his wife, Joan, about three or four months ago. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was somehow infect my favorite teacher with COVID-19, and yet, I heard in Joan’s voice an urgency. Time was of the essence. We sat at his kitchen table, chatting through our masks, and when I mentioned that I sometimes still see my old fifth-grade classmates Andrea Ward and Joe Peterangelo, he immediately perked up, smiled, and repeated their names, as if they were pupils from only a year earlier, rather than almost three decades prior. I heard affection in his voice, happiness. He was glad to know that we were still in touch. Then we talked about his life, his work with Camp Manitou, his time playing for the Eau Claire Bears, his prodigious football and baseball careers, golfing, his children, books, his long marriage, and the natural world.

Once, I was having beers with Peterangelo and Ward down in Milwaukee (I confess I missed my plane the next morning, so much fun did we have) and Joe remarked that Mr. Smith’s reading list that year in the fifth grade had been more ambitious than some college English classes. We read Jack London, Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Ivanhoe” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” We were exposed to college-level histories and notions of deep ecology. He read to us frequently, in a dramatic and warm voice, that I dearly wish I had a recording of now.

Mr. Smith was perhaps the first environmentalist I ever met. I remember him telling us that when we played catch in our backyards treated with herbicides to make the lawn lush and green, we should not lick our fingers before gripping the ball. Think of that! That he was asking us, as children, to make the connection between chemicals on our backyard grass, and the future of our bodies, of cancer! Many teachers instruct our children on a single concept, but it is the great teachers that present a lesson that resonates both in the present and the future, that demonstrates the power of knowledge, that there are repercussions for our actions.

Back in about the spring of 2016, I had the great pleasure of being invited as the keynote speaker for the annual Excellence in Education Banquet, where hard-working local students and educators were honored for their efforts. I could bring a guest, any of my old teachers. I was so very proud to honor Mr. Smith that night, it was truly the least I could do.

Mr. Smith’s obituary read: If one sports fan remembers my name/If one camp counselor remembers our Friday night rituals/If one student recalls the “Oregon Trail”/If my family knows how much I loved them/Then I have lived a good life.

Mr. Smith, you lived the best life, and as long as I live your spirit will reside in me. I will never forget the many gifts you gave me, and though we do not often do so, I am unafraid to say that I loved you, my teacher. I hope to see you again on the other side.

Evers vetoes GOP bills directing federal COVID-19 spending

MADISON (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a package of Republican-authored bills on Thursday that would have directed how the state would spend $3.2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money.

Evers also announced that up to $420 million in that money coming to the state would go toward a grant program targeting small businesses. One of the bills he vetoed would have directed $200 million toward small businesses, an amount Evers said “won’t cut it for me.”

“Our Main Streets have been hit hard during this pandemic and we need to do everything we can to make sure they can bounce back,” Evers said in a statement.

Other Republican bills Evers vetoed would have directed $1 billion toward cutting property taxes; $500 million for broadband expansion; $75 million for tourism grants; $150 million for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities; $308 million for local roads; $250 million to pay off transportation bonds; and $61 million for lead service line replacements and measures to control water pollution.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau warned that the GOP package calls for spending about $626 million on areas possibly not allowed under federal law, including retiring the transportation bonds and local road work. The state also may have to repay the property tax cut and the money earmarked for unemployment, the Fiscal Bureau said.

Evers noted concerns about the legality of some of the spending in his vetoes.

Evers, in his veto messages, also said the proposals limit his flexibility in awarding the money and also take that authority away from the governor.

Evers also previously vetoed a Republican bill that would have given the Legislature, rather than Evers, control over the spending of the federal money.

Under the grants Evers announced, qualifying businesses could receive awards of $5,000. Evers said about 84,000 small businesses that have an annual gross revenue between $10,000 and $7 million could qualify. It will be targeted at businesses that started in 2020 and those hardest hit by the pandemic, the governor’s office said.

Details about the grant program will come after the federal government has issued more details about how the money is to be used, Evers said.

The $420 million grant program is part of $600 million in federal money Evers has promised to target toward small businesses.