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Faribault second baseman Jack Knudson makes a throw to first base Tuesday against Mankato East at Bell Field in Faribault. Faribault dropped both games of a doubleheader. (Nick Gerhardt/Daily News)

Minnesota schools get some flexibility on back-to-school

No matter how Faribault Public Schools students resume classes in the fall, it won’t be like any other year.

Minnesota state officials on Thursday unveiled a plan to reopen schools this fall that gives districts some flexibility to toggle between in-person and online learning, but reserves the right for the state to step in if the coronavirus gets out of control.

Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, acknowledged the importance of schools and the value of in-person learning, but said the state’s top priority is safety. Districts will work with the state Health and Education departments to determine whether to use in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model, and will have the ability to become more or less restrictive depending on the virus.

The plan requires both public schools and charter schools to allow students and teachers to choose remote learning no matter what model the district chooses.

On Aug. 11, Faribault families and community members will receive more detailed information from the district on what to expect for the school year ahead. The Faribault School Board is expected to approve the decision at its meeting the evening prior. A task force consisting of board members, teachers and staff will finalize the recommendation by next week.

“I do want to give a lot of credit to the task force and teacher leadership,” Superintendent Todd Sesker said Thursday afternoon. “They’re really working hard behind the scenes to give students the best possible option, ensuring all students are safe and at the same time ensuring we do the best we can bringing as many students as we can back to school.”

Sesker said he was impressed with Walz’s delivery and pleased with the local control the plan allows. Another helpful piece to the plan, he said, is the regional support that will help in the decision-making process for superintendents. Sesker said Faribault’s support will come from either Mankato or Rochester.

Walz also mentioned in his announcement plan to invest $430 million in federal funding to support schools, teachers, students and their families as the pandemic continues. Locally, Sesker said that extra revenue would help offset the costs of extra transportation if the district implements a hybrid model, additional bus routes and more professional development for teachers.

Sekser also applauds Walz’s plan to rely on Public Health and determine the safety of going back to school based on cases per 10,000 in the county. He hopes the guideline gives individuals incentive to wear a mask to reduce the number of positive tests.

Republicans and some school officials had pressed Walz to leave reopening plans up to individual districts, arguing that local administrators know best how to protect students.

The guidance comes as coronavirus cases have been moving upward in some parts of the state. Minnesota reported 745 new cases on Thursday — slightly higher than the seven-day average — and five new deaths. State officials have warned of rising hospitalizations, but that number dipped slightly in Thursday’s data.

State health and education officials last month asked school districts to prepare for three scenarios: in-person learning for all students, distance learning as in the spring, or a hybrid learning scenario with social distancing and capacity limits.

President Donald Trump has pressed schools nationwide to open for in-person learning, and as many teachers have expressed fears of doing so. Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, last week released a survey with just one in five teachers supporting in-person learning.

Administrators for Minneapolis Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, said Tuesday they plan to start the school year Sept. 8 with distance learning. Their plan would require remote learning as the primary method of instruction, though buildings would remain open for tutoring, technology and mental health support for students and families.

Walz ordered Minnesota public and charter schools to close and switch to distance learning in mid-March as COVID-19 cases began to appear in the state, affecting nearly 900,000 students and their families. As the number of coronavirus cases in Minnesota grew, the governor extended the closure through the school year and prohibited large-scale high school and college graduation ceremonies.

Fresh off one traffic safety campaign, law enforcement embarks on another

One year after Minnesota joined 18 other states and the District of Columbia in enacting a “hands free” law, law enforcement agencies are gearing up for extra enforcement against distracted driving.

According to a release from the Owatonna Police Department, the enforcement and awareness campaign is designed to remind drivers of the importance of driving hands free. It’s coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety.

More than 19,000 citations have been handed out by law enforcement across the state. While Minnesota previously had a law against texting while driving, the “hands free” law is much easier to enforce since motorists can be ticketed for just holding a cellphone while driving.

Under the law, Motorists are only allowed to use their cellphones while driving if they do so in voice activated or hands-free mode, regardless of whether they are using the phone for work or personal use. Smart watches are considered equivalent to a cellphone under the new law.

Motorists can still use their GPS devices while driving, but only in one-touch or voice activated mode — scrolling and typing in an address are both prohibited.

Motorists under the age of 18 are still not allowed to use their cellphone in either hand-held or hands-free mode. Only if a motorist needs to obtain emergency assistance in the face of an imminent threat to their life and safety will they be allowed to place a call in hand-held mode.

Distracted driving continues to be a major problem on roadways across Minnesota. According to the Department of Public Safety, it’s one of four dangerous behaviors that contribute to at least 80% of all crashes, along with impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt.

Each day, an average of 215 crashes occur in Minnesota causing 81 injuries, one death and nearly $5 million in damages. Drivers who use a cellphone are four to five times more likely to be in an injury crash, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The number of motorists ticketed for violating Minnesota’s hands free law seemed to be declining - that is, until recently. In June, some 1,656 people were ticketed, an increase of nearly 500 from May and the highest total since February.

According to the press release, some motorists told law enforcement they have had a hard time breaking the habit. In a a prepared statement, Owatonna Police Sgt. Jason Petterson said that doing so isn’t just a good idea — it could save your life.

“Slipping back into old habits is easy,” Petterson said. “While going back to some old habits might make you gain weight or go into debt, slipping back into manipulating your phone while driving could cost you your life.”

Kathy Cooper of the Rice County Safe Roads Coalition urged motorists to go a step beyond the law’s “hands free” requirement by ditching their phones altogether while driving, thereby minimizing the risk of distraction.

“Hands free is not distraction free,” Cooper said. “Just because you've got your phone mounted on your dashboard doesn’t mean it’s distraction free.”

The Hands Free enforcement campaign comes on the heels of a statewide extra enforcement campaign that ended less than two weeks ago. The campaign lasted from June 22 to July 19, and during it law enforcement agencies reported 16,122 citations for illegal speed.

That total was just slightly below the previous five year average of 16,461 citations, but it’s well below the 2019 total of 21,439 citations. However, the number of speed related fatalities over the period more than doubled, from 7 last year to 15 this year.

According to DPS, speed was a factor in 75 motor vehicle deaths in 2019 and a contributing factor in 26% of single vehicle crashes. Speeding is particularly dangerous as it reduces vehicle control and increases react time and crash severity.

During the campaign, 40 agencies reported speeds of 100 mph or more, including the Rice County Sheriff’s Department, which clocked one motorist at 106 mph. The fastest motorist in the state, caught by the Blaine Police Department, was traveling 141 mph.

Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen said that speeding has become a major concern as of late. He said that many drivers incorrectly assume that they can get away with speeding due to law enforcement’s alleged hesitance to pull drivers over during the pandemic.

“It’s become a major problem across the state,” he said.

Cooper praised local law enforcement agencies for diligently watching out for speeders, even though she said they did not receive the extra funding reserved for the departments with the highest number of citations.

Still, Cooper said she is deeply concerned by the high number of speeding citations handed out throughout Rice County. She said that she fears many people don’t realize how dangerous speeding can be, even if it’s not coupled with other impairing factors.

“Speed limits are there for a reason,” she said. “TZD is putting out a lot of effort to try to change the opinions of drivers, so they understand how dangerous speeding is.”

Saturated soil delayed harvest for many farmers last fall, including on this sugarbeet field near Stephen, Minn., in October. (Dan Gunderson/MPR News 2019)

Police find suspected Paradise burglars on center's roof

Faribault Police believe they have solved a spate of recent break-ins at the city’s cultural hub, the Paradise Center for the Arts.

Burglary charges were filed Monday against 20-year-old Demetrus Wood, of Faribault, over an incident that took place the previous day. According to the criminal complaint, Wood was accompanied by two juveniles, both 16. Information on the juveniles has not yet been made public.

All three were reportedly found by police on the center’s roof after a recently installed alarm system notified the center’s director, Heidi Nelson, of a potential break in. According Nelson, it was the third time in the last month that the Paradise had been broken into. Nelson said she noticed the first break in when she came to the facility on July 4 to put a coat of wax on the floors.

Nelson entered the small library on the upper floor of the Paradise and noticed that a ceiling tile had fallen from the roof. At first, she thought that heavy rains may have caused a partial roof collapse, but she said the tile didn’t look like it had been damaged in such a manner.

Nelson then looked up and quickly noticed that a small scuttle hatch above the tile was open. Footprints in the pottery studio, which was covered with chalk dust, and subsequently along the theatre’s black roof, clearly indicated that unauthorized visitors had been in the building. Panicked, Nelson called the Faribault Police and filed a report. The nonprofit center took steps to secure its roof hatches, but that wasn’t enough to stop a similar incident from happening shortly before July 17.

After the second incident, the Paradise went much further to protect itself, rekeying its doors and installing alarms. With the help of those alarms, the Paradise was finally able to catch its intruders on July 26.

According to the police report, officers arrived at the scene around 11:15 p.m. Sunday and conducted an initial search of the building. That came up empty, but officers found a broken lock at the bottom of a staircase leading to the roof and noticed the roof hatch was ajar.

Police then went onto the roof and immediately saw a man running. The defendant and the two juveniles were found on the south side of the building roof, and a backpack, later tied to the defendant, was found.

According to the Woods’ statement, the trio crawled up a pole to get onto the roof, then opened the hatch to gain access to the building. He said they were only in the building for about 10 minutes before hearing police sirens and fleeing. In the backpack, officers reportedly found a broken piece of pottery. Initially, the defendant claimed that he had purchased the clay piece from Wal-Mart, but later admitted he had taken it from the Paradise, upgrading the charge from break-in to burglary, according to court records.

In addition to the stolen art piece, marijuana was also found inside his backpack. As a result, a gross misdemeanor fifth-degree controlled substance charge was tacked on to the felony third-degree burglary charge.

Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen told the Faribault City Council Tuesday that he believes the same individuals were involved in all three cases. However, charges have only been filed for the July 26 incident.

Nelson said that after the second incident, Paradise Center Operations Director Julie Fakler noticed a finished piece of pottery appeared to have been taken from the studio. That piece has not yet been recovered.

The Paradise Center Director said she found it revealing that instead of trying to steal electronics or other traditional valuables, the intruders were instead more interested in the Paradise Center’s art.

The incidents triggered a bit of discussion at the City Council meeting after Councilor Peter van Sluis, who sits on the Paradise board, raised the topic. Councilor Elizabeth Cap said that incidents such as that clearly highlight a need for more youth programming.

“We have opportunities to fund youth activities and that is a really good thing,” she said. “It’s important for kids to have things to do that are constructive.”

Last week, the council considered a request for $10,000 in funding from Faribault Youth Investment. While comparatively small, the request could help FYI to receive grant funding from Youthprise, a Twin Cities based nonprofit focused on expanding access to youth programming.

However, the pandemic and its resulting budgetary impacts could prevent the city from providing such youth programs, in addition to limiting the types of programs that could occur. Arts-oriented youth have particularly been hurt by the pandemic, losing the opportunity to express themselves at places like the Paradise.