More Illinois Schools Have Access To High-Speed Internet, But Some Still Suffer Without It

Access to high-speed internet stops about seven miles east of both Nippersink School District 2 and Richmond-Burton Community High School District 157, according to Tom Lind. He’s the superintendent of both districts, located near the border of Wisconsin —  about 70 miles northwest of Chicago.

Lind said the lack of access to reliable, fast internet is a big problem for educators and students because 60 percent of learning in those classrooms now takes place online. The joint campus serves roughly 2,000 students who use 3,000 devices, including Chromebooks and other laptops, on a daily basis, Lind said.

The biggest obstacle preventing reliable, speedy internet service, he explained, is the absence of fiber optic cable. Fiber runs underground and offers much more bandwidth with less interruption than cable or satellite internet service — sometimes at a lower cost. According to the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, fiber is the “only available technology that can sufficiently scale to meet most school’s projected bandwidth needs.”

The Nippersink and Richmond-Burton districts are among an estimated 78 across the state that lack fiber connections, according to EducationSuperHighway. The group also estimates that roughly 400,000 Illinois students don’t have enough bandwidth to support digital learning in the classroom. The nonprofit is funded by groups like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as private business leaders, to promote increased access to high-speed internet in classrooms. It partnered with the Illinois State Board of Education in May 2016 in an effort to increase access to high-speed internet in classrooms across the state.

The good news: Access to high-speed internet in schools is increasing at a dramatic pace in Illinois, according to EducationSuperHighway.

Jeff Kang is a state engagement manager for the group. Kang said he’s worked with Illinois politicians, state officials and schools districts over the last couple years to help more students get access to fast and reliable internet service in the classroom.

For learning purposes, a high-speed connection is defined as 100 kilobits per second, a level of bandwidth that can support teachers and students using the internet for web browsing and online testing. The Federal Communications Commission recommended all districts provide 100 kbps per student by the 2014-15 school year.

But that 100 kbps benchmark is just a baseline, Kang said. That level of bandwidth speeds provides the bare minimum of what can be done using the internet in the classroom. To provide a media-rich environment that includes video streaming, collaboration, remote instruction and online educational gaming, schools should be aiming for 1 megabit per second (mbps) per student, according to the nonprofit.

Approximately 96 percent of Illinois districts provide internet at speeds of 110 kbps per student, according to EducationSuperHighway, compared to 71 percent in 2015. Kang said that improvement is due in part to availability of data detailing the connection speeds, quality and cost of internet service at schools across the state. He said the data showed where improvement was needed, and revealed whether or not districts were getting a competitive rate from their internet service providers. The other reason he said connection quality and speed improved in classrooms is due to a federal rebate program for districts that wanted to install upgrades to their service. Kang said improvements were also spurred along by a commitment to the issue from a broad array of Illinois state politicians that includes individuals from both sides of the political aisle, as well as local leaders working to change access to internet in their own schools.

“This is very bipartisan, and it was very easy for everybody to get moving on this,” Kang said.

In the state’s latest budget, Illinois lawmakers set aside about $17 million in matching funds to cover the costs of connectivity upgrades. ISBE will post a request for proposals sometime in the coming month, Kang said. He said districts can then apply for those matching dollars to help pay for fiber upgrades in schools.

Lind, the superintendent of Nippersink and Richmond-Burton, said he plans to apply for a portion of those state dollars, as well as money available through the Federal Communications Commission, to help cover what he anticipates will be a roughly $1.1 million investment in fiber technology.

The two districts currently rely on a wireless system, Lind explained. That means whenever bad weather hits, there’s a possibility their internet connection will be affected — something that doesn’t occur with fiber cables that run underground, he said.

“There’s a (satellite) dish on a water tower in town, and it basically shoots a signal to the high school, then the grade schools and the middle school,” he said. “But when we get thunderstorms or rain or if it’s too windy that day — if anything happens to the dish our whole system goes down.”

That’s what happened a year ago when the internet went down for three days, he said. The impact was enormous on students, teachers and the districts’ business office, which also relies on the internet to conduct day-to-day operations, Lind said.

“Being down one or two hours feels like an eternity. Three days is completely unacceptable,” he said.

It’s the initial cost of fiber that’s held the districts back from doing something about their internet troubles sooner, Lind said. He said he hopes that changes with the new state money being offered.

‘We were tired of it’

Ron Jacobs, on the other hand, said he couldn’t wait for the state to appropriate money for an upgrade. He’s the superintendent of Riverdale Community Unit School District 100. The district sits beside the Mississippi River in the village of Port Byron, just a half-hour drive north of the Quad Cities. The district’s three schools serve 1,200 students on a 40-acre campus surrounded on all sides by corn and soybean fields.

Like Nippersink and Richmond-Burton, Jacobs said his students also rely on Chromebooks in the classroom. Their current system, he said, isn’t cutting it. There’s not enough bandwidth for all students with Chromebooks in grades three through 12, their teachers and district administrators to use the internet at the same time, Jacobs said.

The move toward digital learning “forced us to look everywhere we could for greater bandwidth,” he said.

Jacobs said he discovered a group of residents in town were also getting increasingly frustrated by their lack of access to high-speed internet — and they planned to do something about it.

The group formed their own telecommunications company, STRADA Communications. Earlier this year, Port Byron Village Board gave the company approval to install a fiber optic cable in the village, including a connection to the school district.

Port Byron resident Tom Bussert is the parent of both a Riverdale student and a recent Riverdale graduate. He’s also a partner in STRADA Communications.

He said not having access to high-speed internet “is a big disadvantage for the district. We were tired of it and decided to do something about it. There’s a couple of us that have extensive experience building these same systems for other companies throughout the country and that made it an easier leap.”

Jacobs, the superintendent of Riverdale, said the local company cut the district a deal; they agreed to hook the campus up to fiber for about $80,000, he said. He expects the connection to go live this month.

Access to high-speed internet in the classroom is an issue of educational equity, Jacobs said.

“The types of things other kids are able to access by having that kind of connectivity, the videos they’re able to watch, and the information they’re sharing from student to student — that’s one of the things our business community expects from our kids… it’s a 21st century skill,” Jacobs said.

Lind, the superintendent of Nippersink and Richmond-Burton, agrees. He said his students are also at a disadvantage without high-speed connectivity in the classroom.

“We are very fortunate in our district that we have much of what we need,” he said. “But when it comes to delivering the instruction in a modern school, we haven’t gotten to a point where we can rely on that internet being there from day to day. That is a major problem.”

What We’re Hearing From Illinoisans In The Know

Illinois Newsroom holds Listening Sessions across the state to hear what’s top of mind for community members. Unlike a formal interview, listening sessions are prompted with open-ended questions and discussions are community member led. These meetings often occur for hours, building bonds between our team and communities and giving us direction for deeper-dive reporting series that have regional and statewide perspective.

So far, we’ve sat down with dozens of community members working in government, healthcare, education, criminal justice, environment, social services, and commerce, and we will continue to share our findings with you. We are dedicated to a listening first journalism model, so please reach out to us at anytime!

Where Health Happens in Illinois

Where does health happen? In a doctor’s office? A hospital? What about in homes, schools, jobs, and parks?

The definition of “healthy” no longer relies as much on positive experiences with healthcare providers. That’s the main takeaway from Illinois Newsroom’s recent listening sessions from across the state. Community leaders in education, healthcare, economic development, and philanthropy are focusing their efforts on improving what are known as Social Determinants of Health, things like employment, access to transportation, neighborhood and school safety, and education.

Sarah Patrick, Administrator for the Jackson County Health Department, describes the shift in how communities approach health like this:

“The things we had as standards in public health — good immunizations, good access to food, safe food and water and air — those haven’t gone away, but more and more has been added on as we define what it means to be healthy, define what it means to have good well being, to be happy. These all influence what it means to be healthy.”

Given this new understanding of health, bettering the physical and mental wellbeing of Illinoisans will require a lot of collaboration across sectors. Here are some of the current priorities we’ve heard in housing, education, and healthcare and how they intersect.

Housing

Karen Davis heads Peoria’s new Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) office and works to bring together leaders across Peoria to spark development and investment in historically disinvested neighborhoods. LISC looks not only to municipalities and private real estate developers for collaboration, but also to partners like OSF Healthcare, noting that safe neighborhoods and stable housing can lead to better health.

Davis looks to the work of LISC’s Toledo, Ohio office as a model for success. A March 2018 press release from Toledo-based health care system ProMedica says the system is partnering with LISC for a $45 million project: “New investments and grants will focus on helping families grow employment skills and boost incomes and education. The goal is to improve community safety, finance healthy homes and vibrant businesses, and ensure communities have quality greenspace and jobs. It is a model that can be replicated in communities across the country.”

While Davis works toward similar goals in Illinois, she’s also identified other issues, including the lack of affordable housing and its impact on the education system. With rising housing costs, Davis has heard from Illinois educators that attracting teachers to school districts that can only pay $41,000 a year is near impossible.

Education

On top of a statewide teacher shortage, toxic stress in children creates a strained education system in Illinois. Danielle Chynoweth, Cunningham Township Supervisor in Urbana, sees children suffering from housing insecurity or homelessness struggle in schools. A lack of mental health professionals in schools leaves many students without support to develop the resiliency they need to cope with multiple forms of trauma.

Some children with difficult home lives act out behaviorally, leading to disciplinary action that Kelly Wickham Hurst, the head of Springfield’s Being Black at School, says is unjustly meted out to black students. As Illinois Newsroom’s previous reporting shows, school districts across Illinois are working to change disciplinary policies to support children who have experienced trauma, and Hurst says teacher bias must be investigated to create equitable solutions for non-white students.

Healthcare

According to representatives from Southern Illinois Healthcare, education will be one of the topics for their next Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) as they transition to studying the social determinants of health. Their 2015 CHNA shows statistics about cancer, cardiovascular disease and its risk factors diabetes and obesity, and mental health, but 2020’s CHNA will look at research around poverty, transportation, housing and food access. There is agreement among many healthcare professionals across the state that issues like the opioid crisis and the rising suicide rate are symptoms of larger societal issues.   

Working on a more integrated and collaborative approach to health seems likely to benefit healthcare systems as much as individual Illinoisans. Illinois’ budget impasse affected the public health system immensely according to Sarah Patrick from Jackson County Health Department. During that period there was not only a loss of money and services, but also a loss of talent and knowledge. She concludes that “there is a system discussion that needs to take place.”   

Candidates Struggle To Sway This Moderate First-Time Voter

Athens is a town like many others in central Illinois. With a population of about 2,000, it’s rural, and encapsulated by fields of crops like corn and soybeans. Visitors driving into town off the interstate are ushered in by numerous American flags and a welcome sign listing several area churches.

Aaliyah Kissick calls Athens home and at 18 years old she is a bit of a local celebrity. In 2016, she was Miss Jr. Teen for Illinois in the Miss United States National Pageant. And even though she just started college this school year, she’s already a business owner. Her mom Cheryl is a nurse who chips in and helps as she can, but Aaliyah’s clothing store, AK Boutique, is her own.

Welcome sign to Athens, Illinois CREDIT: Rachel Otwell

The reused clothing she sells goes well up into plus sizes, as she makes a point of being inclusive. What she doesn’t or can’t sell at the store, she donates.

“My three values are self competence, sisterhood and sustainability. So I feel like with the store, I’m really able to lift women up, have them come together to form a community and then we can make a difference in the planet by reducing our carbon tracks and all that fun nerdy stuff,” said Aaliyah.

While politics was rarely a topic of conversation in her family, Aaliyah’s interest started in grade school and she’s excited to vote this year in her first general election. That enthusiasm is tempered by a field of candidates for Illinois governor who she said she doesn’t particularly identify with. Several recent polls show businessman and Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker holds a lead over incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner in the race for governor. But a notable percentage of voters remain undecided or say they’ll vote for a third party candidate. Aaliyah counts herself among the “undecideds.”

Political interest not a family affair

Aaliyah’s store is located on the town square near a tavern, a funeral home and the post office.  Of the people who live in this town, the vast majority are white.

Aaliyah, who was adopted as an infant, is not. She has a black biological father and a white biological mother. Cheryl says adopting Aaliyah changed her way of seeing things. “It changed everything about my life. Just naturally. The racism was one of the big areas, you know, and the lack of equality in political offices.”

Cheryl’s own parents never thought highly of politics. To this day, her mother’s view is that most politicians “are crooks.” And Cheryl said they weren’t ones to make a point of voting. “They were like, oh no, no, no. We don’t discuss politics, you know, because it only starts arguments.”

(Hear three generations of Kissicks talk about the changing role of politics in the family.)

But for Aaliyah, who said she was sometimes bullied about her race, politics came into view at a young age. She said it was the 2008 presidential election that first piqued her interest. She was eight.

Even though she still was too young to vote eight years later, she said she was eager to see the outcome of 2016’s presidential election. “I remember I stayed up all night waiting to see who won and I was just so excited to see how it turned out and to see if my predictions came true, which they did.”

Aaliyah, a self-identified moderate, said she’s wary of publicly showing support for candidates. She doesn’t want to alienate opinionated customers. But she also seems genuinely open-minded when it comes to exploring all her options this election.

She said she looked forward to voting for the very first time this year, in the primaries, even though she won’t say who she voted for. And she takes it seriously. “I do my research mostly by, this is going to sound really dumb, but I Google search and then I click on links. I click on the supporting people, what they have to say. Then I also click on what the opposing party has to say about them,” said Aaliyah. “And then I also like to dig back, searching their names to see if what they’re saying is consistent based on what they’re saying now.”

Julia, Aaliyah and Julia Kissick CREDIT: Rachel Otwell

She said the Illinois gubernatorial race has been impossible to ignore. It was this spring when she started noticing political ads ramp up.

“Right around March, every time I opened Youtube I would always see Bruce Rauner riding on his motorcycle.” At that time she said, “I didn’t even really pay attention to the ad. I was just like, what even is this. He was just riding his motorcycle, and it would cut to him to speeding down the highway. Like he was some sort of cool kid.”

The political battle being duked out between Democrat J.B. Pritzker and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is on track to be the most expensive statewide race in U.S. history. Pritzker is a multi-billionaire, and Rauner’s worth is estimated to be at least several hundred million.

Aaliyah said as an entrepreneur herself, she supports other business owners running for office.

“I actually think that it’s a good thing. I mean, maybe not necessarily a bunch of multi-billionaires that have money in their family, but business owners as a rule are very good at being multifaceted. Business owners, especially if they’re entrepreneurs and they start their business, wear all of the pants or skirts in their business, so they learn how to interact with people. They learn how to be diplomatic. They also learn how to manage money,” said Aaliyah, who talks in a way that makes it easy to imagine her own bid for office someday. She’s calculated and cool, with an easygoing laugh that pairs well with her contemplative answers to questions.

Finding her voice, weighing her options

In between classes at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield where she’s pursuing a business degree, she’s reading the book Sisters of the Yam by bell hooks, an academic and author who blends issues of race, sexuality, gender and culture and is considered by some the godmother of “intersectionality.”

Aaliyah’s ideologies are not easy to pin down, and that’s okay with her. She has her whole life to choose a political party. For now, she said she’s open-minded and undecided.

She does think that overall, candidates underestimate the intelligence of voters. As one example, she points to J.B. Pritzker’s support for legalizing recreational marijuana.

“If you are assuming that people are only going to vote to get weed, you are underestimating the population,” Aaliyah said. “Like, yeah, some people might think weed is cool, but they also think there are more important issues like the economy or specific rights when it comes to being a citizen.”

Lately, she’s been looking into the two third-party nominees, Kash Jackson, the Libertarian candidate, and Sam McCann of the self-established Conservative party.

“There’s not as much information online about them because they don’t have as much of a standing financially to put their information out there. So it’s been harder to do. And the Republican and Democratic parties definitely saturate all forms of the media, so it’s been a little bit of a challenge, but it’s a challenge that I’ve enjoyed because I liked the idea of the underdog and just giving them a chance. I love that. I think it’s so cool.”

Aaliyah says she’ll stay open to hearing from all sides.

“I definitely want the divisiveness to lessen over time, and this is me being a little bit of an idealist, but I do hope that eventually the two-party system is eliminated. Because with the two-party system it’s so divided and with the advent of social media causing echo chambers, it’s going to be even more divided.”

It remains to be seen if Aaliyah will ultimately cast her first vote for governor with a third party candidate, but as she weighs the best outcome for her future, she says all offers remain on the table and will get well-researched consideration.

 

Farmers Cheer Year-Round E15, But Impact Won’t Be Immediate

President Donald Trump’s administration will “unleash the power of E15,” allowing the 15 percent gasoline-ethanol blend to be sold year-round.

The announcement, made public this week at a rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is being welcomed by corn growers and biofuel groups. But it may take longer for farmers like Kelly Nieuwenhuis of Primghar, Iowa, to feel the positive impact of E15 than they would like.

“As a farm operator, 95 percent of the corn I produce goes through a corn ethanol plant, so we see this announcement as a win,” Nieuwenhuis said. With the current low corn prices and trade war, any news signaling a potential increase in demand for his crop is good news.

University of Illinois ag economist Scott Irwin cautioned that, in the short term, “it’s not going to provide any relief from the low prices and income issues we’re experiencing right now in Corn Belt agriculture.”

Nationally, only about 1 percent of filling stations are equipped with the correct pumps for E15, which Irwin said will slow the rollout.

“We probably have between 1,400 to 1,500 offering E15 out of 125,000 stations,” Irwin said. “That’s a tiny sliver of our fueling capacity.”

Ethanol groups expect those numbers to grow quickly once the Environmental Protection Agency lifts seasonal restrictions on E15.

“There have been many retailers sitting on the sidelines waiting for this day to come,” according to Emily Skor of the biofuel trade group Growth Energy. She added that the U.S. needs to “maintain a strong Renewable Fuel Standard,” to pressure oil companies to invest in E15 infrastructure.

Another hurdle

But other Trump administration policies seem to be taking the pressure off of oil companies, Irwin said, which will end up slowing E15’s growth.

Oil companies are required to buy Renewable Identification Numbers, or RINs, to meet the ethanol mandate. And they’d like to keep the cost of those RINs as low as possible.

One way to do that is by blending more ethanol with gasoline by way of something like E15. Selling more ethanol would increase the supply of RINs.

Another way to lower costs is to reduce demand for RINs. According to Irwin, that’s what the EPA has done by exempting some small oil refineries from having to purchase their full quota. As long as the exemptions continue and RINs are cheap, Irwin said, there’s less incentive to switch to E15.

“That’s been a long-run goal of the industry and in that sense it’s a win,” Irwin said. “But I don’t see how it’s going to expand at all without higher RIN prices. And at this point under the Trump administration, I don’t see any evidence that, unless forced to by a court, there will be any change in the small refinery exemption policies.”

Skor said that’s an ongoing topic of discussion with the White House and EPA, adding that the group is “hopeful” that E15 is “the start of a new chapter at EPA.”

Follow Grant on Twitter: @ggerlock

Copyright 2018 Harvest Public Media. To see more, visit Harvest Public Media.

Illinois Tightens Flu Shot Requirements For Health Workers. But Who’s Enforcing It?

A new Illinois statute aims to boost flu shot rates among healthcare workers by making it harder for employees to decline the vaccine.

Lawmakers say this is important in light of last year’s flu season that killed more people than car crashes and drug overdoses. But some on the frontlines of public health worry that a law that’s not enforced will have little effect.

More than half of all states in the U.S.—including Indiana, Ohio and Missouri—have laws regarding flu shots for healthcare workers. The laws vary in what they require, and can apply to employees at hospitals, long-term care facilities, or both.

Breaking Down Illinois’s New Law

Illinois law now essentially requires flu shots for employees at more than 3,000 state-licensed hospital and health care facilities, including long-term care facilities. There are only a few exemptions.

Under the public health department’s new rules, all facilities must offer the influenza vaccine to employees and only allow someone to decline if they have a religious objection or “some sort of medical problem that would be complicated by getting the vaccine,” says Democratic state Sen. Bill Cunningham of Chicago, one of the law’s lead sponsors.

Health workers who have already received the flu shot can also decline their employer’s offer. But “moral reluctance” or philosophical objections are no longer valid reasons to refuse the flu shot.

Cunningham says the old law “basically allowed for employees to use just their personal convictions as a legitimate reason to deny an influenza vaccine.”

That lack of clarity in the law created conflict between some hospitals that wanted everyone vaccinated and employees who didn’t want to get the flu shot, Cunningham says.

He says healthcare facilities can now take disciplinary action against anyone who declines the vaccine without a medical or religious exemption. That could mean getting suspended or even fired.

“I don’t think any hospital wants to get to that point,” Cunningham says. “I think [employers] feel like having the law clarified will help them avoid those kinds of conflicts.”

Why Require The Flu Shot

These stricter flu shot requirements are important in light of last year’s deadly flu season, says Dr. Nirav Shah, who directs the Illinois Department of Public Health.

An estimated 80,000 people across the U.S. died of flu-related illnesses during the 2017-18 flu season, according to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

Flu shot rates for health care personnel (HCP) by occupation, according to internet panel surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey found 92 percent of hospital workers report getting the flu shot in the 2017-18 flu season, compared to 67 percent of employees in long-term care facilities. CREDIT CDC / MORBIDITY AND MORTALITY WEEKLY REPORT VOL. 67 NO. 38

Among those who died, 181 were children. An additional 900,000 people were hospitalized with flu-related illnesses, according to the CDC. Those most susceptible to serious complications from influenza include young children, pregnant women, people with certain medical conditions and adults 65 and older.

The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated against the flu by the end of October. Flu season in the U.S. runs from October through May.

“Healthcare workers are at ground zero,” says Shah, whose agency licenses health facilities across the state. “They are often coming into contact with other individuals who might have the flu and then could potentially transmit it to another patient.”

The goal is to stop that spread, and the new law will help achieve that goal by limiting the reasons health workers can decline the flu shot, Shah says.

Lack Of Enforcement

Some on the frontlines of public health worry the law won’t live up to its purpose since it lacks enforcement.

No one is required to track whether health care facilities are doing what’s now required of them. That worries Julie Pryde, who leads the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department.

“Look at something as simple as a speed limit sign,” Pryde says. “If [they] know that there’s nobody checking up… people aren’t going to follow it.”

Shah says his agency conducts regular facilities inspections, and checking up on flu shot programs could be a part of that.

But Pryde says the law would be more effective if it allowed public health officials at the state level to work with local departments like hers to do more thorough enforcement.

“Unvaccinated workers pose a significant health risk to the vulnerable populations if they get the flu,” Pryde says. But when those employees are vaccinated, they “form a ring of protection.”

A Snapshot Of Flu Shot Rates

Danny Chun, a spokesman for the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, notes that flu shot rates for hospital workers are pretty high nationwide: 92 percent, according to the CDC.

“Hospitals and healthcare workers are very aware of the risks and dangers of the influenza season,” Chun says.

But for employees at long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, the nationwide flu shot rate is much lower, at 67 percent.

Side Effects reached out to several hospitals and long-term care facilities throughout Champaign-Urbana to find out how some places are handling the new law.

At Carle Foundation Hospital and OSF Healthcare, flu shots are offered to all employees, according to hospital spokespeople. Medical and religious exemptions are allowed, and both hospitals’ vaccination rates track with the national average for hospital workers, at around 90 percent.

Spokespeople for Swann Special Care Center, a nursing care program for children with severe intellectual disabilities, and Heartland Health Care Center-Champaign, say they require all employees get flu shots unless they have a religious or medical exemption.

At Clark-Lindsey nursing home, all employees are “highly encouraged” to receive flu shots, but it is not mandatory, according to marketing director Karen Blatzer. “Each employee is given a form to fill out to either accept or decline getting a flu vaccine,” she said in an email. “If an employee declines [the flu shot], he or she has to provide a reason why.”

The Champaign County Nursing Home declined to answer questions.

Pryde says she wants to see the state follow up to ensure all facilities require flu shots of their employees in accordance with state law.

“If people see this law in the news, they’re going to assume that their loved ones are being protected, when in fact, it may not be,” Pryde says.

What The Future Could Bring

Shah says his agency has already done what the law requires: write the new rules and notify facilities about them.

“The implementation and execution of this program is really left, now, to the facilities,” Shah says.

State Sen. Cunningham says he doesn’t anticipate compliance with the new rules will be an issue. It was a hospital system in Chicago, after all, that reached out to initiate the stricter legal language regarding flu vaccines for health workers.

Plus, he says, the state’s public health department has the legal authority to take action against any facility that doesn’t comply. Cunningham says the legislature is also open to further amending the law, if needed.

But Pryde’s question remains: If no one’s checking, how will people really know health care workers are getting the flu shot?

Editor’s clarification: A previous version of this story stated Clark-Lindsay retirement community encourages but does not require employees to get the flu shot. Clark-Lindsay is a senior living community, not a long-term care facility. It’s not affected by this new law and therefore Side Effects has removed this reference from the story.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman

Copyright 2018 Side Effects Public Media. To see more, visit Side Effects Public Media.

Gynecologists cheer FDA decision to expand HPV vaccine to older adults

Gynecologists hope the federal Food and Drug Administration’s decision to approve human papillomavirus vaccine for older adults could protect more people. Missouri has one of the highest rates of cancer caused by the virus in the nation.

FDA officials previously recommended the Gardasil vaccine for those between ages 9 and 26. On Friday, the agency expanded the vaccine for those up to 45.

HPV is a skin virus that’s spread through sexual contact. There are many types of HPV and some eventually cause cancer in men and women, including cervical and throat cancer.

“I’m very happy with the FDA extending the age of to 45, because I think a lot of people can receive a benefit,” Washington University gynecologist Camaryn Chrisman Robbins said.

The new rules are based on a study that showed an earlier version of Gardasil still protected against HPV in older adults.

Experts previously thought older people wouldn’t respond to the vaccine, Chrisman Robbins said. It’s most effective when it’s taken before people are sexually active and exposed to HPV.

But even sexually active adults likely haven’t been exposed to all types of the virus prevented by Gardasil, she said.

“Just because you have been exposed to two or three of those strains over the course of your life certainly doesn’t mean you can’t get the benefit from six or seven of the strains of Gardasil,” Chrisman Robbins said. “The chance that people in their life have been exposed to all of the nine strains in Gardasil is pretty low.”

Because of the lack of FDA approval, insurance companies haven’t covered the vaccine in older adults. Some still opted to get the three-step vaccine, which costs close to $800 out-of-pocket.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee on immunization practices is set to review the new rules later month and issue a recommendation to health care providers. The recommendations set by the committee, in general, steer insurance companies’ decision on which medical practices to cover.

According to the CDC, Missouri has among the highest rates of HPV-related cancers in the United States. Cancer linked to the virus affects 14 out of every 100,000 residents. In Illinois, nearly 12 out of every 100,000 had an HPV-associated cancer.

The CDC recently announced more adolescents are getting the vaccine, but urban adolescents are more likely to get immunized than their rural counterparts.

The virus is still common. There are hundreds of types of HPV, and the majority of people become infected with some type at some point in their lives.

Perhaps with those statistics in mind, many women in their 30s and 40s have asked Chrisman Robbins about the vaccine, she said.

“I have plenty of people in their late 20s who haven’t been sexually active who come to me and they want to be protected,” she said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Copyright 2018 Side Effects Public Media. To see more, visit Side Effects Public Media.

Ask The Newsroom: In Deciding On Judge Candidates, Does Party Affiliation Matter?

Two competitive judicial races for circuit court are on the ballot in Champaign County this year, which doesn’t happen often. Illinois elects its circuit judges to six-year terms, after which they run unopposed to be retained and are rarely unseated.

As an Illinois Newsroom listener watched a recent debate between the candidates, she says the label of “Democrat” and “Republican” for the judicial candidates was confusing. She found herself agreeing with points made by candidates from both sides.

“It seems more necessary to find out about them as people than for the other candidates on the ballot, which I will vote for in a straight party ticket, guiltlessly,” she said.

Through our “Ask The Newsroom” project, she submitted two questions – “how can I find out the differences between the two judges in the two races between a [Democratic] judge and a [Republican] judge; and do those party affiliations make a difference?” We looked into it for her.

Party Politics

Federal judges are appointed, but on a local level Illinois voters elect judges for all courts, including circuit, appellate, and supreme court positions. Thirty-seven more states also have systems for electing judges.

Like those running for the statehouse or county board, judicial hopefuls must collect signatures from supporters to get on the ballot. The requirement varies by location and jurisdiction, but is at least 500 for a Democrat or Republican. A third party or independent candidate must collect least 25,000. That may be one incentive for aligning with a political party.

But unlike traditional political offices, the role of political affiliation isn’t as obvious for judges.

Claire Manning is an attorney in Springfield and chairs the committee for the Illinois State Bar Association that evaluates candidates for the appellate court.

Manning says party affiliation can tell you who backs a candidate and in general what their principles are. But she weighs her knowledge of the candidate’s background and experience more heavily than whether they’re a Democrat or Republican.

“Once the judge is elected, party affiliation becomes less important. And in fact, judges aren’t supposed to be involved in party politics anymore,” she said.

Ron Michaelson, a political science professor and former head of the Illinois State Board of Elections, agrees that party affiliation can’t tell you much about how effective that candidate might be as a judge.

“It’s only an indication of what party they want to affiliate with in order to get on the bench,” he said. “It really doesn’t say much more than that.”

Michaelson says one concerning trend in judicial races is that candidates are raising more and more money, and spending more time on the campaign trail.  

“You never used to have to spend a lot of money to run for judge,” he said. “It was kind of perceived as being unseemly to be going out and raising money like you’re running for the legislature.”

Donors to a judicial campaign can end up with their case in front of a judge they donated to, and that’s what is “troublesome” for some about the trend.

Michaelson encourages voters to look into candidates’ fundraising, the information is available on the Illinois State Board of Elections site.

What To Look For

Manning suggests voters pay attention to a judicial candidate’s experience as an attorney, for example if they’ve tried cases in a courtroom or worked for government agencies.

“It’s important that that person have a knowledge of the courtroom and be able to be a commanding presence,” she said.

Community service, such as volunteering for civic organizations, also can be important, and can be “very telling in terms of the person’s reputation and the person’s approach to the public,” she said.

The bar association publishes ratings for candidates for circuit court judge, based on evaluations from their members. The evaluations ask attorneys if the candidate “meets requirements for office” on a number of categories, including integrity, impartiality and temperament. Only attorneys with direct knowledge of a candidate are supposed to fill out the forms.

The ratings for the general election are set to be published in mid-October (this post will be updated with that information).

Michaelson suggests using those ratings along with endorsements from local newspapers to help voters decide on Election Day.

Ask The Newsroom

If you have a question about the mid-term elections or voting, Ask The Newsroom. You can submit your questions through the form on this page.

Update 10/11/18:
A community member also wrote to us on Facebook to point out a tried-and-true method to learn about the judges on the ballot: “Ask the candidates!” he wrote. “Look at the websites and [Facebook] pages. Send them a message. If they don’t answer that tells you something about them.”

Candidate messaging can be a good starting place for information. News coverage, analysis and endorsements from newspaper editorial boards and local groups can also be helpful.

Illinois Farmers Put Rare Pig Back On The Dinner Table To Save It From Extinction

Josh Davis likes to name his pigs after flowers: Petunia, Iris, Violet and Daisy.

That’s not the only thing that sets him apart as a hog farmer.

For the past three years, Davis and his wife, Alicia, have been raising one of the rarest pig breeds in the world on their farm in Pocahontas, Illinois. The American mulefoot hog was a popular breed in the Midwest in the early 1900s, but now, there are only a few hundred left. The Davises are among a small group of farmers hoping to revive the breed by putting it back on the menu.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan traveled to Pocahontas, Illinois to meet the rare American mulefoot hog and the farmers trying to save them.

“The reason why this hog is going extinct is people aren’t eating them anymore,” Josh Davis explains, loading buckets of fermented grain into a wagon.

He thumps the buckets together and whistles, as his herd of “beautiful flowers” emerges from the trees. The 500-pound hogs roam 12 acres of forest and pasture at Green Finned Hippy Farm, a small organic farm about forty miles northeast of St. Louis.

The American mulefoot hog doesn’t look like your typical pink pig — it’s charcoal black with a solid hoof, like a mule.

It was a popular breed back in the early 1900s, with hundreds of herds spread across more than 20 states, including Missouri, where it was nicknamed the “Ozark hog.”

Jeannette Beranger of the Livestock Conservancy says the mulefoot’s “rough and tumble” nature made it particularly attractive to farmers in the Midwest.

“A lot of the time, American mulefoot hogs were managed on river islands,” Beranger said. “They’d forage all summer long, then when it came to butchering time in the fall, people would just go out to the islands and take what they needed.”

The mulefoot hog started falling out of fashion after World War II, with the rise of commercial agriculture operations that favored a few fast-growing breeds suited to confinement.

Missouri farmer R.M. Holliday saved the breed from near-extinction in 1964, when he gathered the few remaining mulefoot hogs in the U.S. and established a conservation herd at his farm in Louisiana, Missouri, about 90 miles northwest of St. Louis.

There are about 200 breeding mulefoot hogs left in the U.S. today, all of which are descended from the “Holliday herd.”

‘How can you eat something that’s about to disappear?’

In Illinois, the Davises didn’t need much convincing to get their own herd started.

“It feels like there’s a lot more purpose when you’re doing something that’s not just for the sake of growing food for people,” Josh Davis said. “We’re growing food for people, but we’re also doing what we can to be conservationists at the same time.”

Alicia Davis describes the animal as a personable, mild-mannered pig that you can feed out of your hand. Plus, she adds, the meat “just melts in your mouth.”

It hasn’t been easy, however, to persuade their fellow farmers to take the risk.

For some, the problem is the bottom line: the hogs have smaller litter sizes and take about two months longer to mature than a commercial hog.

Although there are several farmers in Missouri raising American mulefoot hogs, including at Littrell Farms in Green City and Crystal Creek Farm in Ash Grove, the Davises are the only registered mulefoot breeders in Illinois.

“We’re still surrounded by very old farming techniques in this area,” Alicia Davis said. “They don’t understand why what we’re doing may be important. They think it maybe wastes time or money.”

In the end, she said, it comes down to economics. In order to keep the American mulefoot hog from disappearing, they have to put back on the dinner table.

“It’s very hard for people to think, ‘How can you eat something that’s about to disappear? Isn’t that making it disappear?’” she said. “It’s the exact opposite. If people lose interest in this hog, that’s why it’ll go extinct.”

‘A special piece of meat’

Over the past year, the Davises have developed a small but loyal following of local chefs, including Rob Connoley, who owns Squatter’s Cafe in St. Louis.

Connoley seeks out local farmers and ranchers in an effort to buy ethically-raised goods with interesting flavors.

“The diversity of sourcing creates a stronger product because it gives you diverse flavors,” he said. “I can go into 20 different restaurants today and pretty much get the exact same food. Why? Because the ingredients come from the exact same places.”  

Connoley pulls a mulefoot hog loin from a chest freezer and points to the thick layer of fat surrounding it.

That fat gives the meat a unique flavor that he’s willing to pay a little extra for.

“It doesn’t taste like the commercial pork we all know. It’s not funky, it’s not gamey,” Connoley said. “It has a rich, clean flavor. It’s such a special piece of meat.”

Connoley uses the mulefoot meat in just about everything, including a Mexican mole made with local pawpaw fruit and their best-selling pork apple breakfast hash.

He also renders gallons of “beautiful, creamy white lard” from the American mulefoot meat, which he uses in a variety of meat dishes.

“There’s not a single piece of that animal that goes to waste, whether it’s the skin that gets turned into chicharron or the fat that gets used in a number of different items,” Connoley said. “Even the bones get roasted off to make a stock.”

Taste aside, he said the ethics of the mulefoot meat are the single most important factor to him.

“If I’m going to consume a life, I want to know that animal had a good life up until the point that it became food,” Connoley said. “I know this animal was well cared for. It was allowed to run in the woods and forage for acorns. That means a lot to me.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Copyright 2018 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Telemedicine Helps Reach Stroke Patients in Rural Illinois

Two years ago, Donna Patton became one of the nearly 800,000 Americans who suffer a stroke each year. She still remembers waking up from surgery and hearing the reaction from her medical team.

“He just said, ‘do you believe in a higher entity?’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I sure do.’ He said, ‘you should, because luck’s been on your side all day long.’”

It wasn’t just luck, however. Technology made it possible for Donna, who lived hours away from the nearest neurologist, to have an amazing recovery.

She was the first patient in a telemedicine program designed to improve stroke treatment in smaller towns and underserved areas.

Her story begins in 2016 at the dentist’s office, where she collapsed after having her teeth cleaned. As she got up from the chair and walked to the counter, she suddenly began to collapse.

Her dentist recognized Donna might be having a stroke and needed immediate medical attention.

A CT showing the damage to Donna’s brain. The red circle is where the clot is blocking blood flow. CREDIT DONNA PATTON/SIH

What Happens To The Brain During A Stroke

During a stroke, blood no longer reaches all areas of the brain. There are three types of strokes but the most common kind is an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood clot restricts blood flow to certain areas for the brain.

“The brain tissue is extremely dependent on blood supply,” said Dr. Alejandro Hornick. “So whenever blood stops reaching an area of the brain, the brain only has a few minutes that it can live without this, so the brain quickly starts dying.”

Dr. Hornick is a neurointensivist in Carbondale. He treats patients who are hours away thanks to Southern Illinois Health’s telestroke program. When it comes to stroke, time is brain — and that’s a big problem for patients in rural areas without a neurologist available.

Any time spent reaching a stroke specialist cuts into a small window to deliver life-saving care. That includes a drug called TPA, which dissolves clots in the brain, or surgery to remove the clot.

Ideally, TPA should be given within one hour of a stroke, but patients can still see improvement if it’s given within 24 hours.

“In an average stroke, after 10 hours, a fifty year old ages 30 years cognitively,” said Dr. Sarah Song, a fellow with the American Academy of Neurology.

That means even patients who survive a stroke can suffer severe disability if treatment is delayed. Patients may experience difficulties with speech or movement, and the ability to live independently can be impacted. Forty percent of stroke patients will have moderate-to-serious impairment, and 10% of patients will require long-term care, according to the National Stroke Association.

Using Telemedicine To Reach Patients

When Donna’s dentist called 911, he activated the first step in the telestroke network. She was transported to Harrisburg Medical Center, a hospital with no neurologist on staff.

Donna doesn’t remember much about that initial visit, only bits and pieces of what was going on.

“I can remember a television screen and I can remember the doctors talking to whoever on that television,” she said. “A guy on the television was talking back.”

That guy was Dr. Hornick, and he was using a screen set on an unassuming cart stored in the corner of a trauma room. When in use, it opens up a video link — like Facetime, but for medicine.

“In neurology, there is a tremendous insight you gain by looking at the patient and seeing how the patient is doing,” Dr. Hornick said, explaining why video is an essential part of the program. “We examine the patients with the help of local nurses that are trained to help and work with us on the cameras.”

That technology let Dr. Hornick order medication for Donna and get her airlifted to St. Louis for surgery to remove the clot.

Neil Atkins sets up the console used to communicate with neurologists. CREDIT STEPH WHITESIDE/WSIU

  In Harrisburg, emergency room nursing director Neil Atkins says telemedicine has changed the way they treat patients.

“In the past, whenever we had a stroke patient, a lot of the mindset that we would have with it is that there’s not a lot that we can do with that patient,” Atkins said. “Since then, what we’ve seen is there’s a mindset change with early identification, early intervention. I mean TPA has been around for quite a while but we wouldn’t administer TPA but maybe one to two times a year. And I know last year, we’ve administered TPA 13 times.”

Widespread Benefits

Telestroke programs benefit large portions of Illinois. In addition to SIH, there are programs in Springfield and Chicago. Other cities are covered by programs based in neighboring states like Wisconsin and Indiana. SIH’s telestroke program ran 275 code strokes in 2017 alone.

The benefits don’t just come for rural areas — programs in Chicago are exploring ways to speed up treatment by bringing care to the patients, with a specially-equipped ambulance that can communicate with doctors and begin treatment in the field.

Dr. Song, with the American Academy of Neurology, says telemedicine can be used in many areas to combat a shortage of neurologists.

“By forming these systems of care where the smaller hospitals could work with larger hospitals and not only get the stroke expertise in the emergency room but also come up with protocols to transfer if necessary,” she said. “That really helped improve stroke care.”

Long-Lasting Results

For patients like Donna Patton, telemedicine means being able to live after a stroke that could have led to death or permanent disability, according to her doctors.

Now living in Florida, Donna Patton has few lingering side effects from her stroke. CREDIT DONNA PATTON

 It took months of physical therapy, but now in Florida, she’s almost fully recovered. She still has some slurring of her speech and lingering memory issues, as well as some issues with one foot when she’s tired. But she is able to drive and live independently.

That, Dr. Hornick, said, is the goal for all patients, even those who aren’t lucky enough to live near hospitals with a neurologist on staff. He believes the future of medicine should include telemedicine to help eliminate geographic disparities in healthcare.

“Your quality of care and your health care and your life expectancy somehow sometimes depends on where you were born and where you live,” he said. “With access to care through telemedicine that should not be the case anymore.”

Copyright 2018 WSIU Public Radio. To see more, visit WSIU Public Radio.

NAFTA Replacement May Help Wheat And Dairy, Keeps Much The Same For Ag

Farmers and agriculture groups are digging through the details of the new North American trade deal, called the United States Canada Mexico Agreement, and some are raising concerns that clash with the celebratory mood of the three countries’ leaders.

The deal, announced earlier this week, changes provisions for auto manufacturing and intellectual property, but keeps many of the former NAFTA provisions for agriculture.

That’s one of the reasons why Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, finds the proposal disappointing. His group advocates for independent family farmers.

He said if Congress approves this deal, only multinational agribusinesses like Cargill or JBS will be able to lodge trade complaints, such as accusing one of the countries of unfairly subsidizing its farmers.

“Continuing to give private corporations the ability to bring a dispute actually puts the farmer in harm’s way,” he said, adding that he believes agribusinesses will act in their own interests and there isn’t a mechanism for independent farmers to advocate for themselves. Maxwell says the deal would also undercut bipartisan congressional efforts to put a moratorium on large agribusiness mergers and leave too much authority in the hands of the World Trade Organization.

But there’s a possible boon for wheat growers in states along the border with Canada, which will be required to treat U.S. wheat the same way it treats its own.

“It would be a big step forward to make this much more fair for U.S. farmers along the border to sell their wheat into Canada,” said Steve Mercer, vice president of U.S. Wheat Associates, which advocates for exports on behalf of state wheat-growers associations.

Mercer said the deal also could help restore Mexican confidence in U.S. agricultural products, as it “preserves the duty-free access and ends the renegotiation.” He added that Mexican imports of U.S. wheat are down about 25 percent this year, which he attributes to Mexico’s concerns about ongoing trade disputes and in particular President Trump’s use of tariffs for leverage.

Dairy could also be a winner, as Canada agreed to some changes that should allow U.S. farmers to expand their exports of milk, cheese and other products, after some tough years, especially for New York and Wisconsin dairies.

What’s the beef?

Some beef industry leaders fear they may lose out under the new deal.

Bill Bullard, is the CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America, and is a former rancher. He was one of severalindustry leaders who called for NAFTA renegotiations to include country of origin labeling.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture did away with the regulation in 2015 after persistent complaints from Canada and Mexico. Since then, meat that is raised in Mexico and Canada can be labeled as a product of the U.S., as long as it’s slaughtered or packaged in this country.

Bullard said the labeling system is deceptive to consumers who think they’re purchasing a U.S.-made product. He also argued that the labeling system undermines U.S. cattle producers, who are forced to compete with cheaper imports from Canada and Mexico.

“We are very disappointed that the administration has missed a huge opportunity to help rebuild and strengthen our U.S. cattle industry,” he said.

But in a news release,the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents many ranchers and the large meatpackers, said the new deal was a success because the free trade gives producers access to foreign markets.

The National Farmers Union echoed the disappointment over labeling. But President Roger Johnson issued a statement saying that the deal, while no panacea, would help to repair strained trade relations between the three countries.

“We have long been at the forefront of the fight for fair trade that puts family farmers and ranchers on an even playing field with corporations and the rest of the world,” the statement said. “Yet a couple areas in this agreement appear to fall short of these goals.”

“Progress was made on the dispute settlement mechanisms,” the statement said, but they still concentrate power in the big corporations.

Congress will need to approve the deal before it can be finalized and implemented.

Harvest Public Media reporter Esther Honig contributed to this report.

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyinAmes

Copyright 2018 Harvest Public Media. To see more, visit Harvest Public Media.

Where Do Illinois Candidates Stand On Student Debt?

Jeff Martin, a high school admission advisor for the Midwest Technical Institute, worries about the amount of college debt facing the students he talks to for a living. He should know because he was in their shoes once. Martin said he travels to high schools to talk to students about college and career choices.

And he said he worries about the financial futures of the students he meets because he said it’s “almost impossible” to pay for college out of pocket without the help of a lot of scholarships and financial aid.

Martin, 40, said he’s still struggling to pay off nearly $30,000 in student loans he took out when he was between the ages of 19 and 20 years old.

Due to a layoff, Martin said there was a time he defaulted on one of his student loans.

“At the same time I lost my job, two weeks later my wife lost hers. We have a mortgage, we have medical bills, and unfortunately we lost a child. That’s a lot to have to overcome and when you are at the point when you may lose the roof over your head, not much else matters,” he said.

Martin said he was able to defer his federal student loans, but the the private company who serviced another of his loans refused to work with him on a payment plan.

That hardship, he said, is why he spends a lot of time doing career counseling with high school students “so they can be more successful than me.”

But he worries that with even the best advice, cost may put a post-secondary education out of reach for many, or force them to also go into thousands of dollars of debt. That’s why Martin reached out to Illinois Newsroom to ask what the candidates running to represent his district in Congress, governor of Illinois and attorney general plan to do to make college more affordable, alleviate the burden of the student debt that already exists and go after the bad actors in the student loan industry.

Illinois Newsroom also put that question to Natalia Abrams, executive director of StudentDebtCrisis.Org — a non-profit that advocates for state and federal policies to lessen the impact of student debt nationally and lower the cost of higher education.

Abrams points out how large the scope of the problem actually is; there’s about 44 million student loan borrowers who owe a combined roughly $1.5 trillion.

“That’s just the people holding the debt,” Abrams said. “Those people have parents and children and brothers and sisters, and people that depend on them.”

She said the issue likely impacts between 150 million and 200 million Americans. “It affects our overall economy, and that’s why we should all care whether we are holding the debt or not, and that’s why our politicians should care.”

Abrams said the good news is elected officials can take action on both the state and federal level. On the federal level, she said there’s a lot of ways to tackle student loans — everything from canceling the debt, to passing refinancing legislation, to allowing bankruptcy protection for student loans, to implementing a no- or low-cost higher education system across the U.S.

Illinois Newsroom asked the candidates running for Congress in the 13th District (where Martin lives) what they plan to do about the issue if elected.

Responses from candidates have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Illinois’s 13th Congressional District Race

 

Rodney Davis (Incumbent Republican):

 

Q: What do you plan to do to address the cost of a college education particularly for middle class families that may not qualify for a significant number of state or federal grants?

A: First of all, as the parent of somebody who’s in college right now who does not qualify, I understand what the cost of college is. One of the issues I tried to take on immediately when I got to Congress in 2015 was student loan debt and how to work in a bipartisan way to move good policies forward.

Courtesy Davis Campaign

I tried to do a couple things, (including) the Graduate Assistant Parity Act. (Editor’s note: This bill was introduced in March 2018 but not passed out of committee.) This was an idea from Illinois State University. Tuition waivers are an important part of tuition and an important part of paying for higher education where people will work to be able to earn tuition waivers. Some of those are still taxed — most are not —  and we fought to make sure that was not the case.

We need to make sure with every graduate assistantship, every tuition waiver, that students don’t pay taxes on it. All that is is extra tuition going to the federal government instead of the university.

We have to ensure the federal tax code doesn’t penalize families for taking advantage of things like graduate assistantships, tuition waivers, etc. to help families reduce the cost of college on the front end so they have less to borrow … But we also have to make sure we continue to spread the message that a college education has to be affordable, because affordability is what makes our institutions in the state of Illinois continue to be able to grow student (enrollment) on an annual basis.

I think the free market is already working. Look at places like the University of Illinois that have continued to freeze their tuition. That means they are seeing families and students choose colleges based on costs. I think that’s a great message to send … Competition for students is real … I think competition is good, even in higher education.

Q: What do you plan to do to help alleviate the burden of student debt on those who are currently carrying it?

A: The (other) bill we’ve been working on is the Employer Participation In Student Loan Assistance Act. (Editor’s note: This bill was introduced in February 2017 but has not passed out of committee.) This would treat student debt the same as tuition reimbursement is treated when it comes to the tax code. It would allow private employers the chance to help pay down student debt for their employees. It’s something that’s in demand, especially in a growing economy with historic low unemployment. These are two areas where I think we can have Washington actually help students and those who already have a bunch of debt.

Student debt in this country is over $1 trillion, and we need to make sure we have options out there to allow the private sector to use this as a financial incentive for people to go work at a particular company. At 3.9 percent unemployment, now is the time to engage the private sector to help pay down the student debt.

That’s something I think is a good voluntary private sector approach that is only going to help students who have graduated with an unbearable amount of debt.

Q: Would you support legislation that would lead to more refinancing options for student loans?

We’ve already been able to make sure that students have the opportunity to refinance, and students have the opportunity to get the lowest rate possible without Washington telling them what they have to pay. When you look at the future of student debt, we shouldn’t be talking about refinancing as much as making sure students and families don’t have to borrow as much on the front end because college is more affordable

That’s the problem I see in Washington: too much is focused on the back end. We can fix that with my bill, the Employer Participation In Student Loan Assistance Act, but we also have to focus on the front end.

Q: What is the role of the federal government in addressing the cost of college and the large amount of student debt that’s already out there.

A: The federal role would be to pass my two bills that I believe would allow many more families to have a much more affordable college education for their children.

Betsy Dirksen Londrigan (Democrat):

 

Q: What do you plan to do to address the cost of a college education particularly for middle class families that may not qualify for a significant number of state or federal grants?

Courtesy Betsy Dirksen Londrigan Campaign

A: I think this is an area we don’t talk about enough and we have to acknowledge that the cost of college goes beyond tuition; it’s also books, it’s cost of living. For people in the middle, it’s an extraordinary lift and can put college out of reach for many people.

When it comes to four-year colleges, there are some things we can do. We can expand work study options. We can look at what community colleges are doing, such as Lewis and Clark Community College, for example. They have these great two-by-two programs where you do your first two years at a community college and it’s done in coordination with the four-year university. You are getting the classes that you need at a lower cost before you finish for your final two years at the four-year university. Those can really help cut the costs of a four-year education.

I also think we need to expand our public service options for student loan forgiveness. We have some options out there, but we have a lot of needs, especially here in the 13th District, around rural health and teaching. Expanding public service for student loan forgiveness is a great way for students to give back to their communities and pay off their student loans. For example: rural health. We have a huge shortage of nurses. (We could expand public service for student loan forgiveness) to make sure people, if they agree to serve for a couple years as a nurse or a doctor in a rural community, that not only do they earn an income but (also funding) goes back to repaying their student loans that they took out to get their education. Those are really good opportunities.

Another model we’ve talked about is expanding income share agreements. It’s a model where on the front end a student does not have all the costs associated with a college degree, but they’ve signed a contract that says for a certain number of years post-college, a certain percentage of their income from their job goes back to the college. Not only does that take down some of those initial hurdles, but it also aligns the interests of the college and the student. The college has a vested interest in making sure that student is successful in their courses, that they are job ready and it encourages job placement.

Q: What do you plan to do to help alleviate the burden of student debt on those who are currently carrying it?

Certainly we have to allow people to refinance their student loans at a lower interest rate. Just like people refinance their mortgages, we have to be able to do that for our students. I also think there are things we can do with employers to help people who are employed alleviate some of their student debt. We can incentivize employers to offer student loan repayment as a benefit. And we also need to raise the cap on employer-provided tuition assistance because it allows them to help their employees to seek further education. There are things we can do with the right people at the table to make this a priority.

Q: Would you support legislation that would lead to more refinancing options for student loans?

Absolutely.

Q: What is the role of the federal government in addressing the cost of college and the large amount of student debt that’s already out there.

A: What I think is missing in the conversation frequently is what this massive student loan debt is costing all of us. People carrying that amount of debt going into the workforce, they’re not able to buy homes, to buy cars. They’re not able to participate in strengthening local economies by going out to restaurants and all the things we need people to be able to do to keep our local economies strong and vibrant. I think, at the federal level, what we can do is help with the refinancing and making sure we make it more workable for people who are already carrying the debt. We can also give people more opportunities to alleviate some of that student loan debt by expanding public service for student loan forgiveness.

Illinois Governor’s Race:

 

On the state level, Abrams — from StudentDebtCrisis.Org — said state legislatures can enact their own policies to drive down student debt. They can enact state-based refinancing programs for both federal and private student loans. That means, she said, that the state government would purchase a loan and then offer lower interest rate repayment options to the borrower. She said the state could also provide an ombudsperson — that’s someone who would investigate complaints made about student loan servicers. Additionally, she said, states could also implement their own low- or no-cost college and university systems to prevent students from having to take out loans in the first place.

Illinois Newsroom asked the candidates for governor what they plan to do to tackle student loan debt and cost of higher education.

Bruce Rauner (Incumbent Republican):

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment on this story. But Rauner does have a political history to examine. In 2017, Rauner vetoed a bill that required loan providers to offer borrowers a range of repayment options and a transparent accounting of what each would actually cost them — known as the Illinois Student Loan Bill of Rights. State Republican lawmakers joined forces with their Democratic colleagues to override the governor’s veto, and the law takes effect this year.  

This year, however, Rauner signed legislation that creates a pilot program to better educate students about loans, repayment options and interest fees. The law dictates that state universities and colleges must send annual letters to students with loans explaining the balance of the loan and yearly repayment totals. He also signed a bill, which was supported by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, that prevents the state from suspending or terminating professional licenses held by borrowers who are behind on their student loan payments.

Additionally, Rauner signed legislation this year that provides $25 million for state universities to match and use to award merit-based scholarships. It’s a year-long pilot program dubbed “Aim High.”

JB Pritzker (Democrat):

The Pritzker campaign, while not agreeing to an interview, sent emailed responses to answer   the following questions.

Q: What do you plan to do to address the cost of a college education particularly for middle class families that may not qualify for a significant number of state or federal grants?

A: Higher education has become unaffordable for too many Illinois students and families. Bruce Rauner’s two-year budget crisis only exacerbated the difficulties families faced by slashing funding for our schools, derailing financial aid, and destabilizing support for our higher education system … Over 100,000 students were cut off from MAP grants, and enrollment in state universities plummeted by 72,000 students.

That’s why I was proud to release a comprehensive higher education plan that will increase funding for MAP grants, restore funding for our colleges and universities, establish a state-administered student loan refinancing plan, and set Illinois on a path toward providing free college education. When I’m governor, I will increase college affordability to keep our students in state and move Illinois’ system of higher education forward from Bruce Rauner’s crisis and instability. Together, I know we can give our state’s brightest minds the tools they need to thrive.

Q: What do you plan to do to help alleviate the burden of student debt on those who are currently carrying it?

Too many across our state have been burdened by crippling amounts of student debt. That’s why I have proposed a state-administered student loan refinancing program to help students and families reduce their student loan payments by hundreds or thousands of dollars per year. By working hand-in-hand with the higher education community, I’m confident we can provide relief to students saddled with debt.

Sam McCann (Conservative):

 

The McCann campaign did not respond to our requests for comment.

Kash Jackson (Libertarian):

The Jackson campaign sent these responses to some of our questions via email.

 

Q: What do you plan to do to address the cost of a college education particularly for middle class families that may not qualify for a significant number of state or federal grants?

Courtesy Kash Jackson Campaign

Rising tuition costs at public universities is a concern to me. I intend to deal with this issue by first addressing why tuition at public universities is going up and what can be done; second, I will offer solutions to help middle-class families afford tuition at state universities.  

One of the main factors contributing to rising tuition is the growth of administrative costs. In order to curb the rising costs to attend a public university, I will cut the administrative bloat that currently exists.  Most tax dollars go towards administrative salaries and pensions rather than to academic functions. One way to cut administrative costs is to look at ways to make our state university system more efficient. Three other states–Wisconsin, California, and New York–have streamlined their state university system.  We can learn from what these states have done and implement their strategies. I would also look to create one unified board for all 12 state universities rather than having nine separate boards. My goal is to create a more unified university system in order to cut administrative costs.

I would like to acknowledge that lawmakers in Springfield have addressed the problem of keeping tuition affordable, like introducing HB 1316, which would offer grants to students attending public universities. Yet this type of legislation forces taxpayers to make up the difference and does not offer fiscally responsible solutions, i.e. make universities accountable for using taxpayer funds for academic purposes rather than on superfluous administrative costs.

More education is needed for families looking to pay for college. Studies have shown that most Americans are not aware of the 529 savings plans that offer tax advantages for families planning for college. Private scholarships exist as well. To increase the awareness of resources available to families, more outreach and education is needed, even for families with young children so that they can start saving sooner.

My office will partner up with organizations such as the Illinois Student Assistance Commission and the Illinois Board of Higher Education to provide more outreach and workshops at places like schools and public libraries. There are methods in place to help families save and pay for college — the 529 savings account and scholarships — and I intend to increase education on how to use these resources.

Finally, I will advocate for policies that increase transparency in higher educational institutions. Tuition costs and fees to all prospective students need to be provided upfront on promotional materials and easy to understand. Additionally, academic departments need to provide concrete examples of the types of careers and expected salaries of chosen fields of study so that students have a clear understanding of job and salary expectations upon graduation so that they can make an informed decision before taking on debt.   

Q: What do you plan to do to help alleviate the burden of student debt on those who are currently carrying it?

According to a report issued in 2017 from the Institute for College Access and Success, 61 percent of college graduates in Illinois are saddled with an average debt of $29,271. This is an overwhelming responsibility of debt that is looming over a new graduate whose average age is around 23 to 24. Yet the reality is that so many seeking a college education must take on this debt in order to work towards a bachelor’s degree. I take a compassionate position with those burdened with student debt. I do not believe that the state should take punitive measures towards those who find it difficult to pay off their debt.  For example, the Career Preservation and Student Loan Repayment Act that was signed by Gov. Rauner f this year is the type of legislation that I support.  

In an effort to aid those with student debt, I will work towards increasing debt forgiveness programs currently offered through the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. More debt assistance programs could be offered to those who choose to go into high-demand fields in order to attract students to pursue careers in those sectors.  

Another solution is to offer state tax-incentives to those companies who aid students in paying for their tuition so that students do no need to take on as much debt. The goal with these incentives is to encourage more companies to offer tuition assistance programs to their employees.        

Students should be encouraged to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates. Refinancing options are currently advertised by banks and credit unions with attractive rates.  I support these types of free-market solutions. As a Libertarian, I do not support the expansion of state government in this area. Federal student loans are a major contributor to the rising cost of tuition.

Illinois Attorney General’s Race:

Abrams from StudentDebtCrisis.Org said a state’s attorney general can have a big impact on student debt holders. For example, she cites outgoing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s recent action against student debt servicer Navient. Madigan’s office sued Navient (and its predecessor Sallie Mae) for allegedly peddling high-risk subprime loans to borrowers and failing to fulfill its loan servicing duties.

Illinois Newsroom asked the candidates whether they agreed with Madigan’s actions against Navient, and if they would continue to go after loan companies for harming student loan borrowers.

Kwame Raoul (Democrat):

 

Courtesy Kwame Raoul Campaign

The Raoul campaign sent this statement via email in response to our question:

Sen. Raoul agrees with Attorney General Madigan’s actions in this area and will continue to crack down on lenders, servicers and institutions that defraud students. In addition, he is troubled by Secretary Betsy DeVos’ efforts to rollback protections and limit loan forgiveness programs for borrowers defrauded by for-profit schools that misrepresented the value of their degrees. As the father of two children in college, this issue is personal to Raoul, and as attorney general, he will work to protect student borrowers through lawsuits, advocacy and consumer education.

 

Erika Harold (Republican):

Courtesy Erika Harold Campaign

The Harold campaign sent this statement via email in response to our question:

Erika supports the legal action taken by Attorney General Madigan against student loan providers and would continue to advocate for increased transparency and disclosure from providers. Our state must take all appropriate action to ensure that students are making responsible and fully-informed decisions on a critical and important issue like a college education.

It’s (Not) All In The Family: Outside Help Needed As Farm Operations Grow

Michael McEnany always knew he wanted to be a farmer. Both of his grandfathers were, and he “always loved tagging along with my Grandpa Ed.”

Both of his parents chose ag-related careers, but neither of them went back to the farms they’d grown up on. Still, McEnany’s done nothing but farm for more than a decade. Starting part-time in college, he worked his way up to a full-time, year-round job on Steve Henry’s corn and soybean operation in Nevada, Iowa.

Soybeans pods in September at Long View Farms as harvest approaches. CREDIT AMY MAYER / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

Nearly 20 percent of the people who work on farms are not owners (i.e. people who aren’t in the family), according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Twenty years ago, it was about 15 percent. And it ranges from people like McEnany to immigrants who often have animal-handling experience or are willing to work on dairies or in large barns full of egg-laying hens.

Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson said labor demand is being driven up by aging farmers who need more help with physically taxing jobs and the constant demands of large livestock operations.

“You will see some population growth as a consequence of this,” Swenson said of rural areas, “how much more population growth we can expect, that’s another story.”

Harvest Public Media’s Amy Mayer takes a look at the changing employment trends on the farm.

Henry’s grandfather and father only needed to employ one person when they ran the family farm. But the whole operation, now known as Long View Farms, has gotten bigger as he pursued opportunities such as investing in equipment and then offering custom work on other people’s fields. He now has the help of his wife, two of their sons, three full-time employees and a handful of as-needed part-time workers.

At Long View Farms in Story County, Iowa, Scott Henry works with his parents and one of his brothers. They also have three full-time, non-family employees. CREDIT AMY MAYER / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

“There is an opportunity to have a very successful career as an employee with a farm,” Henry said. “I don’t see as much of that as I would like.”

He sees the farm business, which is fewer than 10 miles from Iowa State, contributing to the local economy in a broader way than it did in generations past. But he’d like farmers in more-rural areas also to be able to expand their businesses, which likely would create a few jobs and help their local economies.

“I personally hope that we can find ways to build our communities up through these young people who are working for our farms,” Henry said.

Swenson said that’s a possibility: Just look at hog businesses. Back in the early 1990s, most had fewer than 5,000 hogs. Today, more than 80 percent have more than that, requiring an increased number of workers who want housing as close to work as possible, often in the nearest town.

“They’re not re-populating them such that the towns are growing,” Swenson said, “they’re just simply affecting the rate of decline for many of them.”

Swenson cautioned, however, that growth has likely peaked. Plus, farm jobs, especially for operations help like planting, harvesting and maintaining equipment, aren’t always done by young people launching their careers or immigrants starting anew in this country.

Minnesota dairy farmer Pat Lumemann has six children, none of whom chose to work on the farm. He depends on employees to help run the operation. CREDIT AMY MAYER / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

“Three of my employees are former farmers,” said Pat Lunemann, a dairy farmer in Clarissa, Minnesota. “They just decided that they couldn’t make it work anymore, and they came to work for us.”

Lunemann has also come to rely on immigrants and it’s impossible to talk about farm work without them. Republicans and Democrats acknowledge federal laws need to better address this need, but Congress has insisted on taking up only comprehensive immigration reform, which has repeatedly stalled.

Lunemann’s dedicated immigrant employees have filled a critical need for him, he said, as none of his six children chose to return to the farm. And he is adamant that newcomers are the key to revitalizing rural communities.

“We need to invite more immigrants to the United States, not less, because some of our best and brightest people are the immigrants that are around us,” Lunemann said.

One immigrant at his dairy works there during the day, and from April to October, also tends his own 50-acre vegetable farm, selling that food in the Twin Cities.

Harvest is in full swing at Long View Farms, but McEnany moved on in August to help the next generation of aspiring farmers — he’s now the operations assistant at Iowa State’s student-managed farm.

After working on a family farm near where he grew up for many years, McEnany took a job in August on the student-managed farm at Iowa State University, which he was a part of while in school. CREDIT AMY MAYER / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

He and Henry recognized it was a position that would allow for more professional growth than McEnany would likely get at Long View. Plus, it came with something elusive for farm workers: state university benefits.

This story was reported in part with a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyinAmes

Copyright 2018 Harvest Public Media. To see more, visit Harvest Public Media.

Cannabis-Derived Drug Gains Full Federal Approval, Some CBD Reclassified

There’s good news for hemp growers across the U.S. who are preparing for harvest. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration removed some cannabidiol, or CBD, from the most restrictive class on Thursday, allowing for the first cannabis-derived pharmaceutical to be sold in U.S. markets.

It comes on the heels of the possible legalization of hemp in the next farm bill, which Congress has been working on. But the scope of the DEA’s ruling is rather narrow, applying only to drugs containing CBD — an extract from the hemp flower — that have below 0.1 percent THC and have been approved by the FDA for specific therapeutic uses.

“It’s a noteworthy event, but I don’t think it necessarily marks a substantial change in how the DEA is addressing cannabis,” according to Chad Kinney, the director of the Cannabis Research Institute at Colorado State University-Pueblo.

He said many experts in his field had expected the ruling. In June, the Federal Drug Administration approved the drug Epidiolex, which uses CBD extract to treat epilepsy, and the DEA had to take this step in order for doctors to be able to prescribe it to patients.

Kinney said, however, that the decision is promising because it proves the federal government will consider cannabis-derived drugs when provided with the scientific evidence that they’re effective. This could lead to further research into CBD and clinical trials for Epidiolex.

“That might move forward at a more rapid rate or we might see more experimental or scientific work to explore the other potential uses for treatment,” he said.

Though hemp is federally prohibited, the 2014 farm bill allows states to oversee its cultivation as a part of research pilot programs. At least 39 states allow for hemp cultivation, including Missouri and Kansas passing legislation this year, and more than 25,000 acres were cultivated in 2017.

The biggest market for U.S. hemp crops is CBD. Companies like Joy Organics, based in Colorado, promote the oil as a medicinal treatment for everything from anxiety to arthritis.

Spokesperson Hannah Smith said they infuse things like dog treats and sports drinks with CBD. While the DEA ruling does not affect their products, she hopes it will lessen the stigma.

“It just means that more people are going to be willing to try CBD for whatever it is that they suffering from, whether it be seizures, or chronic pain,” she said.

Experts expect CBD to become a billion-dollar market in the next few years, though at the moment Smith called it a bit like the Wild West.

She said further research and regulations supporting the use of CBD will help get her products into the hands of more customers.

Follow Esther on Twitter: @estherhonig

Copyright 2018 Harvest Public Media. To see more, visit Harvest Public Media.

Little Rock Nine Member Talks About Desegregation, Mental Health In Galesburg

Knox College, in Western Illinois, honored a civil rights icon with a doctorate degree during its convocation in September. Elizabeth Eckford was one of the Little Rock Nine, the nine black students who faced extreme racism as they tried to desegregate a white high school in Arkansas in 1957. Eckford attended Knox for a year until it became too expensive, but she said it left an impact.

Reporter Madelyn Beck talked with her before the ceremony.

Eckford spoke later that day in Galesburg about her new book called The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High. It’s the first book she’s published in 50 years.

 

Why Your Sense Of Smell Could Be A Clue To Alzheimer’s Disease

Your sense of smell may give doctors early clues as to whether you’ll deal with Alzheimer’s disease. Since there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are focused on ways to identify early signs and create treatments before dementia sets in.

Dr. Shannon Risacher is one of those researchers. She’s at Indiana University’s School of Medicine Radiology and Imaging Science Department, where she led a study focused on how people’s sense of smell could be connected to Alzheimer’s disease.

Risacher and a team of researchers gave a “scratch and sniff” test of 40 different smells to a group of 34 people.

“What we wanted to do, was look at whether or not the performance on this test was linked to certain proteins known to be involved in the Alzheimer’s disease in the brain,” said Risacher.

The findings suggest there’s an association between a low score on the “scratch and sniff” test and the protein that accumulates in regions of the brain where Alzheimer’s tends to show up.

The study also found that the sense of smell can be associated with atrophy in certain areas of the brain.

Dr. Evan Fletcher works in the the Imaging of Dementia and Aging lab, or IDeA Lab, as a project scientist with the Department of Neurology at the University of California Davis School of Medicine. He says the study’s findings are exciting.

These images show areas where increased tau deposition, a protein in the brain, is associated with low test scores on a smell test. CREDIT THE JOURNAL ALZHEIMER’S AND DEMENTIA: DIAGNOSIS, ASSESSMENT AND DISEASE MONITORING

“The study is showing that you could have an early test that might alert somebody to further investigate it.” Fletcher said. “But right now it’s (the study’s findings) too early to say that anything is definitive.”

Risacher said doctors are particularly interested in this study because a smell test can become an early screening tool for Alzheimer’s. It’s also easier to administer compared to how screenings are done now.

“Currently the way we visualize the amyloid and tau (two proteins in the brain connected with Alzheimer’s) is through PET scans and they’re (the scans) perfectly safe but they are expensive and relatively invasive,” said Risacher.

Risacher is looking to get more funding to support a larger study with more participants. She also hopes to advance the study by incorporating a memory test.

“I think the smell test can be used on its own or maybe in collection with other types of tests as a screening tool that people can get every year.” Risacher said. This would be on par with an annual physical.

The study was published late last year in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment and Disease Monitoring.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Copyright 2018 Side Effects Public Media. To see more, visit Side Effects Public Media.

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