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Faribault Falcons’ Nettie Tostrude, left, leads a pack of Faribault Falcon girls runners to the finish line at the state Class AA cross country meet Saturday at the University of Minnesota Golf Course in Falcon Heights. Tostrude was 10th in team competition. Mary Erie (No. 302) was 13th and Brenda Dickison (No. 301) was 14th. The Falcons were second in the meet to Minnetonka. (Staff photo by Brian Peterson)

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Driver's ed shifts to online format, behind-the-wheel in park

Being cooped up during stay-at-home has a lot of people itching to get out, and students on the verge of getting their learner’s permit are no exception.

But before these 15-year-olds can obtain their licenses, they need to learn the rules of the road. That’s why Faribault Community Education recently offered driver’s education instruction to 20 students via an online portal. The in-person class was supposed to start March 16, not long before schools closed.

Joe Pientka, drivers education coordinator, said a variance from the state authorized Faribault Community Ed to offer drivers education classes through Google Meet during the coronavirus pandemic. This way, students could complete the required 30 hours of classroom instruction without breaking social distancing orders.

“It’s something they all really want,” said Pientka. “The unfortunate thing is they’re not allowed to take the permit test right now because the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) isn’t open.”

Usually, students wrap up driver’s ed at Faribault High School on a Friday, and the DMV brings the tests to the students right after their final lesson. But now, Pientka said students who took the online class may be at a disadvantage because they don’t know how long they’ll need to wait before the DMV opens again. They will need to retain the information they learned in class for an unknown amount of time.

After passing their permit test, students need to complete six hours of behind-the-wheel training. Community Education hasn’t offered any behind-the-wheel training since the Stay at Home order started, but Pientka said instructors will need to provide masks for students and sanitize the vehicles whenever that portion of the training resumes.

While offering online instruction to 20 students reduced the backlog of those waiting to complete their classroom hours, Pientka said technological complications have prevented the district from offering a second online class during the academic year. Students will now need to wait until summer to take the classes. Two classes in June and two in July are scheduled, provided the technology issues can be resolved.

Scott Roiger, a teacher at Roosevelt Elementary, taught the online class using the same curriculum he’s always used, following the state manual and going through each chapter. It was a different experience, he said, not being able to engage with students in person.

“The kids I thought did a great job staying engaged, being on task and being on time,” said Roiger.

Like always, students were required to present on topics related to driving. For the online instruction, attendance stricter than usual — students needed to keep their cameras on and mute or unmute their microphones accordingly.

With students running on all sorts of different schedules since schools closed, Pientka reached out to students who signed up for the online class and asked if they were sure they could commit to the specified time for 10 three-hour sessions. Many could commit without issues.

“The difficult part is you’re talking to an iPad and just not getting that interaction with the students, which is what we enjoy,” said Pientka.

Overall, Pientka said the virtual class ran smoothly and students obtained the information they needed. But if the in-person instruction can’t resume in the summer months, he’s not yet sure how an online format can continue. He would have to work with the Faribault district to find out if students can continue using their classroom devices after the academic year ends.

In-person driver’s ed classes are usually capped at about 30 students, said Roiger, so even if classes at the high school can resume in summer, the new challenge will be keeping the class sizes manageable. With the May class cancelled, a larger number of students will likely sign up for the summer sessions.

“Our goal is to get back to normal hopefully in June,” said Pientka “We were happy to provide online learning for classroom driver’s ed but I think we all agree we would prefer to have it face-to-face to have that interaction with the kids.”

Even without annual walk, Friendship House prepares for Mental Health Month

As part of Minnesota’s efforts to combat COVID-19, Friendship House, a key resource for adults with mental illness, has been closed for more than a month.

Normally, Friendship House’s downtown Faribault office would be teeming with activity. The community center is open seven days a week, with several social activities a day to help its clients bond.

Roughly one half of its participants live in group homes, while the other half live independently, said Friendship House coordinator Lynda Devine. Nearly all have debilitating mental health conditions like schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. Through Friendship House, individuals with severe mental illness are able to make friends and participate in a variety of volunteer activities, such as programs from Meals on Wheels to Adopt a Highway.

“I think it has helped our clients to feel like they’re more a part of the community,” said Mark Wisdorf, Devine’s fellow Friendship House coordinator.

Due to those conditions, most Friendship House participants don’t drive or have regular employment. Devine said that some members can drive, while others live close enough to walk to the downtown office.

Still, for Friendship House coordinator Devine and Mark Wisdorf, one of the most important tasks is driving around Faribault to pick up clients before events, and then after those events, drop them off at home.

“A lot of times, we’re only limited by the number of seats in the van,” Devine said.

Providing needed services

When the center closed to the public, Friendship House staff immediately turned their focus toward providing fun, safe recreational activities for people to do at home. Arts and craft project kits were dropped off to the homes of Friendship House regulars.

Like Friendship’s House normal activities, the kits were funded by the South Central Community Based Initiative. Established in 1995, the SCCBI provides state dollars to organizations like Friendship House serving adults with severe mental illness.

Established in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, SCCBI serves 10 counties in the area — Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Freeborn, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Rice, Sibley and Watonwan.

In addition to providing recreational opportunities, Friendship House staff worked on the complicated issue of food delivery. Many Friendship House members normally rely on public transportation to get food, but those options have become more limited since the governor issued a Stay at Home order.

To start, Friendship House collaborated with Community Cafe, a once a week free community meal offered by the Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior. Community Cafe has continued to offer meals to go during the pandemic, and has seen a massive uptick in demand.

Friendship House also applied for and received grant funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield to package fresh food packages for Friendship House clients. Starting on April 29, 75 food packages were packaged by Fareway Foods, with fresh meat and vegetables. Those food packages have been coupled with efforts by the Faribault Area Food Shelf to provide mobile food shelf drops, providing those in need with access to non-perishable food items.

During this incredibly stressful time, Friendship House members have stayed in touch via group texting and Zoom. Some of the more creative Friendship House members have even made masks for themselves and other members.

“It’s hard to make friends as an adult if you have a lived experience of mental illness,” Devine said. “They call each other and support each other without our intervention.”

Awareness month

May is Mental Health Month, and in a normal year, Friendship House would be preparing for its walk to raise awareness of mental illness, organized in conjunction with other local agencies and organizations.

Last year, dozens participated in the walk, which was followed by speakers and an ice cream social at Buckham West. Rice County Adult Mental Health Coordinator Chris Kern said that the event has consistently grown larger each year.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental health issues in a given year. Mental illness is more frequent than cancer, diabetes or heart disease. Yet even among those with severe psychiatric conditions, roughly half don’t receive treatment. Some of those patients struggle to access treatment due to economic reasons, but many others shy away from it due to stigma.

Kern said that the walk, along with other events during Mental Health month, is designed to reduce that stigma. Suffice to say, there won’t be a march this year, but Friendship House and its partner organizations are coming up with other ways to raise awareness.

Mental Health awareness is associated with green ribbons, and Kern said that ribbon reminders would be posted around the Rice County Government Services Building. Mental health awareness posters are likely to go up in other community buildings.

Devine strongly urged those dealing with mental health issues to seek treatment, even if they are skeptical about how much it might be able to help them. In her role, Devine says she has seen how mental health treatment can transform lives.

“There is definitely hope for recovery,” she said. “People can go on and lead their best lives.

Founded six years ago by owner Mitchell Mulert, From The Ground Up had already been servicing both the Owatonna and Faribault area prior to acquiring Koopmans Landscaping and Design — taking on both residential and commercial clients within a 50-mile radius of the two cities. (Photo courtesy of From The Ground Up)

SageGlass donation aids social distancing at City Hall

Next week, Faribault City Hall will reopen its doors to the public. While the latest modifications to Gov. Tim Walz’s Stay at Home order have made the move possible, a donation from a local company helped to make the decision easier.

Thanks to the efforts the city’s SageGlass, glass dividers have been added to service counters on both the second and third floors of City Hall. The addition will provide both visitors and city hall city employees with additional safety and peace of mind. For more than 20 years, Sage has been an important and growing local employer. Founded in New York by chemical engineer John van Dine, the company has been on the cutting edge of the electrochromic glass industry.

After moving to Faribault, Sage occupied the facility on Airport Drive that is now home to Tru Vue Glass before moving to its current facility, which has more than 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space.

After Walz’s Stay at Home order was announced, Sage effectively shut down its plant. Along with several other Faribault manufacturers, Sage is considered a critical infrastructure facility by the federal government, so it wasn’t required to close. However, Ryan Park, Sage’s Global Head of Marketing and Product Management, said the decision was made to help employees adjust their lives to the unique circumstances inflicted by the pandemic.

The construction industry has been less affected than many by the pandemic, and Sage saw a backlog for its products pile up during the shutdown. On April 13, Sage employees returned to work, with strict cleaning and social distancing procedures in place.

One of the first things the company did after reopening was reach out to officials with the city of Faribault, including Police Chief Andy Bohlen, to see if there was any way they could assist. Bohlen asked if the company would be interested in building the glass dividers.

According to Faribault Parks and Recreation Director Paul Peanasky, the city has considered installing glass dividers on the second and third floor for years as one way to improve the safety of city staff.

Though plans were proposed, city staff ultimately decided not to move forward with it. Now, given the ease with which coronavirus spreads through the air via respiratory droplets, the need became much more urgent.

Sage agreed to manufacture 200 square feet of glass at City Hall free of charge and paid a contractor to install it as a gift to the community. As indoor glass, it lacks the cutting-edge technology of Sage’s patented self-tinting glass.

Park said that Sage has always had a great relationship with the city and was happy to help out. He said that Sage worked hard to make sure they were able to complete the project earlier this week, before City Hall’s reopening.

“We knew they could open up very soon, so we wanted to make sure we got this done before that,” he said.

Peanasky said that city staff are deeply thankful for Sage’s contribution. While the city is still encouraging residents to get their business done online or by mail if possible, he added that staff look forward to welcoming residents next week.

“We’re very appreciative of Sage stepping forward and assisting with this project,” he said “It will be very beneficial for staff.”