Jefferson County’s COVID-19 death toll increased by one on Friday and Superintendent Jeffrey Bates announced on Thursday that Southwestern schools will be going virtual next week due to staffing issues related to the pandemic.
Beginning, Monday and continuing through Friday, Southwestern will hold classes on a virtual format due to a shortage of essential staff. Southwestern’s winter break is Dec. 20-31, and Bates said the plan and hope is that Southwestern will return to regular in-person learning on campus beginning Monday, Jan. 3.
Bates said the issue is with the number of essential staff, such as teachers, aides, nurses and custodians, who are having to quarantine due to COVID-19 contacts with nursing being one of the main concerns. “We have too many staff out,” said Bates, which prevents the school corporation from effectively serving students.
Bates said the decision to go virtual was not impacted by student COVID-19 cases, noting currently only 15% of the students are out for quarantine. He said while that number isn’t good, it is not high enough to shut down in-person classes and since the school’s issue is with staffing rather than students, Bates said extra-curricular activities will continue to take place as scheduled.
He said one other possibility for dealing with the staffing shortage would be to combine classrooms, “but that goes against what we’re trying to do to stop the spread” by putting more students in a space together, but getting substitute teachers for those who are out on quarantine has been difficult.
“I don’t like for us having to go virtual,” Bates said, “but I don’t think we have any other option at this point.”
Meanwhile, the Indiana Department of Health announced on Friday another COVID-19 death in Jefferson County, the 106th during the pandemic. Numbers remained unchanged for Carroll County with 32, Trimble County with 25 and Switzerland County with 13.
Jefferson County’s positive cases now total 6,139, an increase of 98 since Wednesday, with a 12.7% positivity rate. Switzerland County’s total positive cases are 1,520, an increase of 15 since Wednesday with a 15.9% positivity rate.
In Trimble County, there have been 13 new cases of COVID-19 in the last two days for 1,389 overall with a positivity rate of 14.91%. Carroll County has had 22 new positive cases in the last two days for 2,186 overall. Carroll’s positivity rate is 11.76%.
Friday’s statistics released by the Indiana Department of Health showed 5,315 new positive cases of COVID-19, increasing the overall total to 1,150,899 with 49 new deaths to push the overall death toll to 17,400. In Kentucky, there were 2,736 new cases of COVID-19 reported, bringing the overall total to 808,148. Kentucky’s death toll is now 1,479 with 61 new deaths reported.
With Wednesday’s Madison School Board meeting coinciding with the snowfall of the winter in Jefferson County, Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Studebaker talked about the challenges he faces in deciding whether to delay the start of the school day due to road and weather conditions.
Studebaker said when a two-hour delay is called, it’s typically for two reasons. One is when it’s really cold and there’s a little bit of slickness on the road, a delay can provide enough daylight to better see road conditions. The other is “to buy ourselves some time to see what’s going on and whether the county can get the roads cleared.”
He said if roads can’t be cleared in a timely fashion a two-hour delay will sometimes turn into a call for a virtual school day.
In explaining what occurred Wednesday, Studebaker noted there were schools to the north of Jefferson County that initially went with a two-hour delay, and then switched to a virtual school day. “When they were trying to make the call, it was 50-50,” he said. “The roads were slushy and they decided to go ahead and do a two-hour delay, and then as everyone was driving on the slushy, it compacted the ice. So with us not doing a two-hour delay, we actually got our folks in, and we had no issues with our buses and our drivers.”
“Weather calls are brutally difficult,” Studebaker said, noting the easiest decisions are when there are several inches of snow the night before. “I hate fog because is going to be bad in one location and not another.”
Studebaker said the decision on Wednesday was more difficult north of Jefferson County, and that it is also more challenging for those communities with roads in hilly areas.
“As always, we tell our parents if you don’t feel safe putting a kid on a bus, if you don’t feel safe driving in, then stay home, and that would be an excused absence,” Studebaker said.
In other business:
• Studebaker noted that Wednesday was his four-year anniversary as superintendent of Madison Consolidated Schools.
“My first board meeting was the night we approved the first expansion on Anderson” Elementary, he said. “It has been an honor to serve Madison Consolidated Schools. My intent that night was not to stay. I was going to be the interim for six months; that was what I was going to do. But this is a great place to be. A lot of great people convinced me that I need to be here and they were correct. It’s been an outstanding four years. I appreciate everything and everybody that has made our four years here as successful as it’s been. We have a lot to be proud of here. A lot of great work has been done, and we’ve got more to do.”
• The board took action on Wednesday to approve pay increases for the superintendent, administrators and professional certified staff, which follows last month’s approval of the collective bargaining agreement with teachers. Additionally, because transportation employees are not receiving retro-adjustment for wage increases to July 1, 2021, as was done with other employees, a stipend of $200 was approved for them.
Members of Madison’s Redevelopment Commission received an initial report on a downtown parking study at their meeting Thursday.
Madison Mayor Bob Courtney said recommendations and more complete report will be made in January by HWC Engineering, the firm hired to do the study, but that he wanted to update the Redevelopment Commission because it provided funding for the parking study.
Courtney noted that due to commerce and tourism in downtown Madison, it was important to analyze the supply and demand for parking, and to steer the city in the best direction to determine investments and policy changes that might more effectively manage the parking inventory.
Nicole Schell, director of planning for the city, said HWC was in the city with a drone on three different days over the course of two weekends — Thursday, Oct. 14; Friday, Oct. 22; and Saturday, Oct. 23 — with the area studied covering Third Street to First Street between Broadway Street and East Street with data collected every hour between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. on those days.
Courtney said they decided that was the corridor needing the most extensive evaluation because that’s where parking needs seem to be the greatest. “We know we can’t evaluate the whole downtown,” Courtney said, adding “It’s not needed to evaluate the entire downtown.”
In the corridor surveyed, 1,603 total parking spaces were identified with 636 of those off-street and the remainder being on-street spaces. On Thursday, the peak hour was at noon with 48.8% of spaces occupied. On Friday, the peak was also at noon with 53.3% spaces occupied. On Saturday, the peak was at 3 p.m. with 53.1% of spaces occupied.
“Even in peak times, we’re barely using 50% of our inventory, and the relevance there is it doesn’t mean that you always have a parking spot in front of where you want to park, but what you’ll see in January when we look at it in a much more detailed way, we can tell you exactly where the peak parking was, and how close to the peak parking was there available parking, and in all instances there was parking generally adjacent to the area had the highest demand,” Courtney said.
He said there has been some discussion on whether the city needs to invest in a downtown parking structure but, based on the data so far, one is not needed. Courtney said it’s a matter of better managing the existing parking.
“What we’re needing to look at is how do we manage the inventory that we have,” he said.
Schell said the section that is most full is Main and Second streets between West and Mulberry streets where 75 on-street spaces are occupied at a peak of 86.9% on Thursday, 92% on Friday and 102.7% on Saturday. Schell said she wasn’t sure how the Saturday figure calculated to more than 100%, but Courtney explained that the data was collected on a Saturday when there was much activity in that area with the Madison Area Arts Alliance celebrating completion of the Mulberry Murals.
Schell said it does indicate that “a large portion of our on-street parking is utilized” but she noted there are other areas where spaces are under-utilized such as the Jefferson Street parking lot, which Courtney said is downtown Madison’s largest parking area and the least used.
“There really is availability downtown, it’s just about the capacity of visitors and how we manage those spaces,” said Schell.
Courtney said the city will use the data and work with the engineers to come up with actions on how to address the central core of the downtown business district where parking is closest to capacity.
Commission President John Grote asked as downtown buildings “fill out and vacant buildings become filled and used, especially with where we want to go with Madison Music Movement, how does this study coincide with that and the planned use that we want for the downtown area? Will we be able to support more open businesses there bringing in customers?”
“We can accommodate that additional growth of businesses in those corridors” if the inventory is managed correctly, said Courtney. “You may have to walk half-a-block or a little bit, but it is certainly giving us the conclusion that a parking structure isn’t needed. A parking structure could cost $4 to $5 million. So, now we have got to figure out if we’re not going to build a parking structure, how do we get people to where they should be where parking is available?”
He said one answer is to provide directional signage, which he said currently does not exist. “When a visitor comes to our community and they drive into the area, they see a lot full, they don’t know the community well enough to know where to go. There’s a lot of options that we’re going to be exploring to help manage the inventory better.”
Hoping for a larger commitment of funds from county government, the City of Madison has delayed finalizing water rate increases to be passed on to customers to fund a planned $15 million drinking water improvement project, but that will change soon because the time for delays has ended.
Madison Utilities Manager Brian Jackson told city council on Tuesday the hope at first was that the city would receive a grant to pay for much of the project. Later the city appealed to the Jefferson County Commissioners to contributed $2.5 million to the proposal. But with the grant application now rejected and the county pledging only $100,000, the time has come to finalize the rate increase and begin breaking the news to customers.
“We hope to wrap it up very soon,” Jackson said, so funding can be secured and work can begin as scheduled. The project will include replacing about 22,000 lineal feet of water lines and making improvements to storage facilities, both routine maintenance that is long overdue.
According to Jackson, the grant program was extremely competitive with funding targeted for water districts with the most need who were passing on the highest rates to customers. Since Madison’s 4,000 gallon water minimum costs customers $9.48 monthly and many districts charge $70 or more for the same amount of water, Madison was way below the line needed for funding. He said Madison currently makes all the water most customers use daily for about 25 cents per household and the city’s average utility bill is about $40 for water, sewage, trash collection, recycling and compost.
Still, taking on a $15 million debt will have an impact. Although local customers will still pay less than most communities in the state — and many neighboring communities — there will be rate increases and the work now is to determine how big the hit will be.
“While there will be a rate increase I think it will be manageable compared to statewide averages,” said Mayor Bob Courtney, who has lobbied repeatedly for more county support since Madison Water actually services about 75% of the county and may have as many or more customers in the county as the city by providing water to multiple rural water companies.
Jackson said he and the accountants held out hope for a larger contribution from county government but with that looking less likely they will now move forward with rates based on the $100,000 pledge which he said is small enough to be “negligible.”
At the same time, both he and Courtney said once rates are established, they plan to “have another discussion” with the county to relay the proposed rates and how a larger contribution could still impact monthly water bills of residents for years to come.
In other reports, Madison Streets Superintendent Tony Sorrels updated the council on seasonal leaf collection to date, noting that 131 tons of leaves have been collected by two crews provided by the Indiana Department of Correction’s local women’s correctional unit.
Sorrels said the department does not have a leaf pickup schedule because there are too many factors involved but that once residents have leaves collected and at the curb to call the city and be placed on the collection list. He said it seems like the downtown area gets more attention that the hilltop, and in fact it does, but with 90% of the city’s storm sewers in the downtown area, efforts must be made to keep drains cleared to prevent flooding.
Sorrels added that Corrections has indicated interest in extending its contract with the city to provide labor crews and that he is in favor of that arrangement. He also added that the city’s snow plows are installed on trucks and ready to respond for winter weather emergencies.