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Virus' impact on Parks & Rec programs will continue into summer

Staff layoffs, the removal of rims from basketball courts at city parks and the closing of the Community Center. All the handiwork of the novel coronavirus.

But don’t expect the changes to Faribault Parks and Recreation programming to stop there, says Paul Peanasky.

During a Tuesday evening discussion with the City Council, Peanasky, the city’s Parks and Rec director, laid out the possibilities for the department’s near future. While City Administrator Tim Murray noted that some Minnesota cities have already cancelled recreational programming, Faribault’s council won’t make any decision on its summer offerings for a few weeks.

Under the order of Gov. Tim Walz, the Community Center has been closed since mid-March. While city parks have remained open, their use is restricted, and visitors are expected to follow social distancing guidelines. According to Peanasky, not all community residents have followed those guidelines. For example, large groups have continued to play pickup basketball at city parks.

With a tight budget that is likely to be impacted by a loss of revenue from COVID-19, the city lacks the resources needed for rigorous enforcement. As a result, the department has been forced to restrict services further, in this case by removing rims from basketball courts.

At its April 28 meeting, the City Council approved temporary layoffs for four Parks and Recreation employees. Peanasky and Murray said that with the gym closed and future events unable to be planned, the positions aren’t needed now.

By granting official layoffs, he said the city is enabling the workers to apply for unemployment insurance. The employees will continue to be on the city’s payroll, enabling the laid off employees to resume their duties when the pandemic ends.

Still, Parks and Recreation Department employees have continued to upload videos to YouTube to help people continue with classes such as yoga and tai chi at home. In addition, it took the lead in organizing the April 29 Faribault Community Parade which featured emergency responders and educators and Rice County Social Services staff.

It’s unclear exactly how long it will be before the Community Center reopens, but Peanasky said it’s not too early to start planning for it. He expects that the governor and Public Health officials will recommend a gradual reopening process.

With social distancing protocol, limits on large group gatherings and use of masks and other Personal Protective Equipment likely to persist well after centers like Faribault’s will be allowed to reopen, Peanasky acknowledged that programs are likely to look different for some time.

Even though many community members may be itching to get out of the house, several Councilors were uncomfortable with the idea of opening up the Community Center and expanding programs as quickly as the state allows.

Councilor Elizabeth Cap said she was most concerned about public health and safety. Cap noted that Rice County has already had one resident die from complications related to COVID-19 and said that if minimizing contact as much as possible could save more lives, it would be the right move.

“I would err on the side of caution,” she said. “We’ll have other summers.”

For Councilor Royal Ross, the city’s fiscal situation is also a concern. Given the strict restrictions on class sizes, and requirements of strict cleaning and distancing protocol, Peanasky said that the city could incur a loss on some classes, unnerving the Councilor.

“To run programs at a loss for a very limited number of participants, that’s something I can’t go along with,” he said.

Instead of holding classes at the fitness center, Councilor Janna Viscomi encouraged the city to consider relaxing restrictions on outdoor recreational opportunities. She noted that already, municipal and state parks have provided key recreational opportunities during the pandemic.

GALLERY: FHS class of 2020 celebrates Senior Decision Day drive-thru style

Faribault High School seniors usually celebrate Senior Decision Day during homeroom near the end of the academic year, but this week they celebrated their accomplishments from their cars.

Faribault High School Senior Erica Johnsrud holds her valedictorian medal while posing for a photo with Freddy the Falcon on Senior Decision Day. (Photo courtesy of Faribault Public Schools)

Faribault High School senior Kelsie Demars, wearing her North Dakota State University Bison attire, posed for a photo with Freddy the Falcon on Senior Decision Day. (Photo courtesy of Faribault Public Schools)

Students have been out of school since their spring break in mid-March, after which Gov. Tim Walz ordered school closures throughout the state in response to COVID-19. At the end of April, he declared schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year. That means seniors won’t return to FHS to finish up their final year of high school, and events like Senior Decision Day, the senior awards ceremony and graduation have been or will be restructured to allow for social distancing.

Senior Decision Day recognizes students who plan to earn their two or three-year degree or a technical certificate from a college of their choice, those entering the workforce or military after high school, and those taking a volunteer/gap year. The tradition began five years ago.

Volunteers handed seniors their cords and valedictorian medals during the senior decision day drive-up. (Misty Schwab/Faribault Daily News)

On Tuesday, seniors picked up their graduation cords and any medals of distinction by driving through the FHS parking lot during Senior Decision Day. Students were invited to drive through the parking lot at a designated time, based on their last names. Freddy the Falcon, wearing a mask like the other volunteers, posed for photos with students while they remained inside their vehicles. In keeping with the tradition of signing the senior class banner, which usually hangs in the high school for the remainder of the school year, students wrote their names and post high school decisions on a label to hand to a staff member. The labels were then added to the 2020 senior decision banner.

Faribault Public Schools employees, and Freddy the Falcon, pose by the 2020 Decision Day poster seniors signed. (Misty Schwab/Faribault Daily News)

At the end of the lineup, just before students exited the parking lot, staff members from South Central College handed out water bottles, sunglasses and stress balls to students. Seniors planning to attend SCC in the fall had the option of posing for photos with their SCC shirts and merchandise.

Edel Fernandez and Elizabeth Prange of South Central College handed out stress balls, sunglasses and water bottles to students who drove by during senior decision day. (Misty Schwab/Faribault Daily News)

“We wanted to continue this event to honor and celebrate this special class and time of year,” said Michelle Breun, FHS counselor. “The seniors have worked incredibly hard, and we wanted to recognize their accomplishments and congratulate them on their chosen post high school option.”

Breun said the event was well-received and attended by seniors and their parents. Senior Decision Day will be included in a video recognizing the FHS class of 2020, which FCTV and the district’s social media pages will air next week.

Later this month, Breun said Senior Awards Day will be recorded in lieu of the in-person ceremony scheduled for May 20. Donors, who usually present the scholarships in person at the ceremony held during the school day, have the option of making a recording a message to be played or having a counselor make the presentation. Athletic awards and scholarships will also be included in the ceremony.

As for graduation, Superintendent Todd Sesker said the district plans to come to a final decision on the commencement format by May 15. FHS Principal Jamie Bente collected results from a student survey, in which students could vote to have the commencement proceed in person at a later date, virtually, in a drive-in movie format or via parade. He’s also working with parents, staff and law enforcement to determine the best option.

Cory Hackett

Cory Hackett, who passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns, looks for a receiver during the third quarter. (Daily News file photo)

Pandemic-induced revenue losses stack up for Gustavus, South Central

As coronavirus continues to spread, Minnesota’s public and private colleges and universities have been forced to adjust to serve students while maintaining financial viability.

Across Minnesota, both private and public colleges have benefited from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which provided nearly $14 billion in aid for higher education institutions. At least half of that funding is required to go directly to students in the form of Emergency Financial Aid Grants.

Of that, South Central College was awarded more than $1.8 million in funding. With campuses in Faribault and North Mankato, South Central College provides academic programming for approximately 4,700 enrolled students throughout the region.

That funding is crucial, with colleges and universities around the state facing significant budget shortfalls.The system of 37 state colleges and universities currently projects a loss of $35 million to $40 million for fiscal year 2020 as a result of the pandemic-induced shutdown. Roughly half of that loss is attributable to a lack of room and board fees, as students no longer housed on campus. South Central College’s status as a commuter college shields it from that blow, but other sources of revenue have been diminished.

Private colleges could face even steeper challenges. At an online meeting of the Minnesota House’s Higher Education Finance and Policy Division, Gustavus Adolphus College President Rebecca Bergman estimated the cumulative hit could top $70 million.

Under the CARES Act, Gustavus and its Lutheran counterpart St. Olaf College are set to receive roughly $2 million, half of which is reserved for students, while Carleton College has been awarded just over half that.

Bergman said that while the funding under the CARES Act helps, it only covers a relatively small portion of the hit colleges are taking. Should the pandemic continue, she said Gustavus would have to consider furloughs or even layoffs. Gustavus expects to see a financial loss of roughly $6 million this spring and summer as a result of the pandemic. She said that roughly two-thirds of that loss is attributable to a loss of housing and meal plan revenues.

On the whole, Bergman says that Gustavus has the resources to weather the financial challenge. The college has a sizable financial endowment, although it has shrunk substantially since the outbreak began and the market began to shrink.

Describing it as a “relatively short-term issue,” Bergman noted that Gustavus has faced and overcome significant challenges before. In particular, she pointed to the 1998 tornado outbreak that rendered many of the college’s facilities unusable.

“I have a real sense of optimism that we will pull through this,” she said. “Our community is very strong, and we will come out on the other end of this stronger than ever.”

Since March, Gustavus students have continued with their coursework online. They’ll complete their coursework by the end of this month, though due to restrictions on large gatherings, the college’s traditional commencement ceremony is now postponed indefinitely.

While Bergman said that students and staff have adapted admirably to the challenges of working online, she earnestly hopes that students will return by the fall. She maintained that face to face contact is a vital part of the college’s model as a four year residential liberal arts college.

“I’m very proud of how well things has gone, but (online learning) is not the same as being in residence,” she said. “We are a residential liberal arts college, and that means we value the in-classroom experience.”

South Central College President Annette Parker said that despite the financial challenges, the college has focused on protecting the health and safety of its students and staff while helping them to weather the financial storm as well. To do that, South Central opted to extend its Spring Break, initially scheduled for the first week in March. Parker said that time gave students and staff ample time to adjust to the challenges of online learning.

Since then, the vast majority of South Central classes have been moved online. Other changes have been made, such as extending the deadline for students to withdraw from classes and giving students the choice of receiving Pass/Fail grades instead of a letter grade.

Online classes are likely to continue through the summer, Parker said. While the college initially moved to cancel its commencement ceremony, the event is back on thanks to technology, with a virtual commencement ceremony slated for June 25.

Parker said that the college is hopeful that students will be able to return for some in-person classes in the fall. However, she said that would likely only proceed with rigorous cleaning, social distancing and ample Personal Protective Equipment.

Still, Parker said that the college will be following Centers for Disease Control guidelines closely and it’s far from implausible that the college could remain “virtual” for longer. In order to partially shield class schedules from any potential resurgence of the virus and subsequent shutdown, labs are slated to be complete by the first of December.

In addition to providing funding through the CARES Act, the college is continuing to serve its students in need through its food pantry. There, students can pick up food, clothing, books and other essentials, and a robot has been added to minimize patrons’ contact with staff.

That’s not to say South Central is in the clear financially. Parker said the college is doing everything it can to limit non-employee expenses. In addition, she participates in regular meetings with officials from other colleges around the state to share best practices.

“We know that there will be a gap,” she said. “We’re trying to close it as much as possible.”