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Faribault senior Sarah McColley returns a ball during Tuesday’s 6-1 defeat against Red Wing at Faribault High School. McColley and senior Rylie Starkson lost 7-5, 0-6, 6-4 at No. 1 doubles. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)

Heightened protocols designed to keep students healthy at school, on bus

When it comes to keeping surfaces clean and eliminating physical contact, school leaders are getting down to the nitty gritty.

Faribault Public Schools and Faribault Transportation Services are both following new and increased cleanliness and safety procedures this year to keep students and staff healthy during the coronavirus pandemic.

To prepare staff for the new protocols being implemented in the school buildings, Director of Teaching and Learning Tracy Corcoran organized a three-day workshop called the Unconference Week of Excellence Aug. 25-27. Staff members completed a series of online and in-person sessions to prepare for the year ahead.

During a session held in the Faribault High School auditorium the morning of Aug. 25, Faribault High School assistant principals Joe Sage and Shawn Peck and FHS Principal Jamie Bente told high school staff about the various ways the lunchroom and classroom procedures have changed to reflect health and safety guidelines.

Staff members watched an instructional video to learn about how and when to disinfect their classrooms. Teachers will receive a new towel each day and complete the cleaning process between each group of students. Teachers were instructed to never let students use the disinfectant.

For lunch, teachers will release students sporadically from different areas of the building to eliminate hallway traffic and reduce the number of students in the cafeteria at one time. Instead of following a bell schedule, teachers will listen to an announcement to know when it’s their turn to dismiss students. After a few weeks, Peck said teachers will have memorized the routine and won’t need to rely on the announcements.

Unlike most years, Peck said seniors will not be allowed to leave campus for lunch due to guidelines from health professionals. Students will use disposable lunch trays and dump them in garbage bins in the hallway outside the lunch room.

During the 60-minute lunch periods, teachers can take students outside for fresh air and movement. Teachers will be divided into pairs in which one supervises a classroom for half an hour while the other teacher escorts students to the lunchroom, and then they’ll switch for the second half of the period.

The district also modified its hallway pass procedure so students don’t touch the same pass. Instead, each individual student will receive a card stock pass, like a punch card with about 30 empty boxes. A teacher will need to sign a box each time a student asks to leave the classroom, and since students will only be in school two days a week, Peck said the boxes shouldn’t fill up fast. Students who fill up their passes during the school year may receive a new one.

One teacher at the Unconference asked how to handle hall wanderers during COVID-19. Peck said while staff wants students to attend school in person, those who don’t comply with the new rules will be given many second chances but ultimately encouraged to do distance learning if they can’t take the protocols seriously.

Riding the bus

Students who ride the bus will already start following new health and safety procedures before they step foot in their school buildings and continue following those regulations on the ride home.

Garrett Regan, manager of Faribault Transportation Service, said his company worked with Minnesota School Bus Operators Association (MSBOA), Minnesota State Patrol, Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education to implement new procedures on the buses. Regan said he’s pleased with the Faribault Transportation staff, drivers and bus aids for meeting accommodations with customers and willingly adjusting to the new health and safety protocols.

“We feel good about where we’re at with this,” Regan said.

Before students ride the bus each morning, parents are asked to complete health screenings like temperature checks to ensure their child has no symptoms of COVID-19. Per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, Regan said temperatures should not rise above 100.4 Fahrenheit, and students who were in contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 should not ride the bus. Bus drivers and bus aids will also complete health screenings each day.

Just like in the classroom, the mask or face covering requirement pertains to school buses as well. Drivers will also wear masks as students board the bus, but to ensure utmost concentration on the road, they may remove their masks while driving. To allow for more social distancing between the unmasked driver and students, the seat behind the driver will be left vacant.

Students will be asked to use the hand sanitizer provided as they board and leave the bus. To eliminate interactions, they will board the bus from back to front and students may only sit with those in their immediate households. Regan said the buses will be filled at half the usual capacity, and roof hatches and windows will be cracked open to improve ventilation.

Fewer students per bus means a modification in bus routes this year. Staggered pick up and drop off times allow for that flexibility. Rather than adding more buses on the road, Regan said drivers will pick up double routes as they continue serving all schools in the area.

After both the morning and afternoon routes, buses will receive deep cleanings using CDC-approved methods for disinfecting, including a spray proven effective against viruses.

Rather than activating consequences for students who refuse to comply with the safety procedures, Regan said Faribault Transportation will work to educate and inform. He plans to work with parents and schools to stress the importance of following guidelines with the ultimate goal of keeping everyone who rides the bus healthy.

If a student who rides the bus tests positive for COVID-19, Faribault Transportation would work with the child’s school and follow steps to trace potential exposures.

“We’ll make sure to notify others who have had an exposure, but our goal is to limit exposure just like in the schools,” Regan said.

Some families have decided not to have their students ride the bus this year due to the COVID-19, but Regan said there are no “hard and fast numbers” to show the significance of the reduction.

“That’s kind of expected with this,” Regan said. “As everyone has said, these are unprecedented times, and we’re all doing our best. We just want to do the best we can with our procedures, and we’re certainly open to answering any questions … We just want to do our part to get the students back in school, and we’re working hard to follow all the updates, and we look forward to a good school year.”

Boards begin ironing out differences over approach to historic preservation

In a move that could pave the way for reduced tension and increased collaboration, Faribault’s City Council held a lengthy joint meeting with its Heritage Preservation Commission on Tuesday.

Tasked with preserving Faribault’s historic downtown, the HPC is no stranger to controversy. While it has only a very small budget, already exhausted for the year, and several unfilled positions, it’s become known for its outsized influence.

HPC member Sam Temple proudly noted that when he talks to leaders from neighboring communities about Faribault, they have nothing but good things to say about the city’s downtown historic district and the HPC’s role in preserving it. Temple acknowledged that tensions between the HPC and council have risen in recent years, but he doesn’t think that the council’s perception is an accurate representation of the relationship between the HPC and downtown business owners.

“I would say I haven’t come across many building owners who came to meet (with the HPC), and didn’t leave enthusiastic and glad that these experts in buildings and history had reviewed their project.”

Last year, relations between the council and HPC worsened over the fate of Crawford Hall, a now demolished historic district building with a rich history. Built in 1875, the Third Street NW building once housed a public space that made it a central hub for events back in the day. Unfortunately, the building suffered from years of neglect so severe that a 25-foot hole in the roof was developed. Still, when the council approached the HPC asking for a certificate of appropriateness for demolition the HPC declined.

The HPC is an advisory commission, so the council had the authority to override its decision and approve the demolition anyway. Still, over the objections of Councilor Tom Spooner, the council approved an analysis of the building’s condition. The report, conducted by ISG, concluded that $3 million would be required to bring the building back into shape. While the HPC then concluded that saving the building was not feasible, it also expressed frustration at the council’s approach.

“We seem to be an advisory group that doesn’t get listened to,” lamented HPC member Ron Dwyer.

The frustration between the HPC and council clearly runs both ways. That much was made evident from the beginning of the meeting, when Councilor Janna Viscomi, who owns the former Bernie’s Grill in downtown Faribault, shared her own experience of working with the HPC.

Viscomi was quick to praise the HPC for making invaluable contributions to the downtown area, helping it to preserve its unique historical character. Faribault already has one of the largest historic downtown districts in the state, and the city is working hard to make it larger.

“I think our relationship is fine,” she said. “Every council changes, but their role doesn’t. It’s just an issue of determining what their role is and how they can best serve the community.”

However, Viscomi also expressed frustration over some of her experiences with the HPC. While she appreciated the end result of a courtyard outside of her building, Viscomi said it came at the cost of three months of finagling as well as significant expense. Viscomi also said that the application of the city’s sign ordinance has been an issue. For building owners in the downtown district, and only those in the downtown district, the HPC reviews and approves signs to ensure historical appropriateness.

“We have to stop and wait until this organization gets together, and then we have to wait for them to tell us what they think it should be,” she said. “It’s just one more group of people telling us what to do.”

Community Development Coordinator Kim Clausen defended the HPC’s actions, citing the example of a recently approved sign for Northwest Mutual. In that case, Clausen, the staff liaison to the HPC said that the commission's feedback improved the sign by eliminating shiny surfaces.

However, Viscomi’s concerns about signage turned out to be shared by other councilors and even HPC member Karl Vohs. Vohs said that while there is value in making sure signage is uniform and accurate, having it as a part of the HPC’s portfolio isn’t ideal.

“I think people would be relieved if we didn’t have to do the signage,” he said. “It’s not part of the HPC’s original job, it’s just something the council dumped on us.”

Improving communication

Like Viscomi, Councilor Royal Ross expressed support for the HPC’s work and floated the idea of increasing funding to the HPC. Since his days as Faribault Main Street coordinator, Ross has pushed to secure more funding to help downtown buildings avoid Crawford Hall’s fate.

Ross said that his main concern between the HPC and council was the lack of communication. He said that the council should consider taking significant steps to stay abreast of the HPC’s agenda, including perhaps the establishment of a joint ad-hoc committee.

In his comments, Councilor Spooner largely focused on the issue of a downtown building owner who was recently reprimanded by the HPC for installing vinyl windows to replace old wooden windows.

While the HPC ultimately let the building owner keep those windows, they required the owner to modify those new windows to blend in with the district. Clausen said that wooden windows may not only be more historically accurate and aesthetically pleasing, but longer lasting if given proper maintenance.

Spooner pushed back on that, noting that maintenance can be costly for owners. He encouraged the HPC to be more willing to accommodate business owners who are interested in preserving their buildings while doing so in a cost-effective manner.

Vohs noted that by keeping up rigorous historical standards downtown, the HPC helps to ensure that property values remain high and the district remains in the good graces of the state and federal government, helping building owners to qualify for Historic Preservation tax credits.

Still, Viscomi agreed with Spooner’s point. She noted that in many cases, the alternative to cost-effective improvements may be boarded-up windows and decaying buildings — a site that is all too common in downtown areas.

“It distresses me to look out and see boarded-up fronts, and yet we’re concerned about a sign or a window,” she said. “I don’t want to be the city that deters investment.”

Police lights

A Le Sueur man was arrested for allegedly assaulting a teenage girl. (News-Herald file photo)

Rice County Sheriff's Department prepares to embrace body cameras

With concerns about police practices on the rise, the Rice County Sheriff’s Department is finally moving ahead with a long anticipated move toward equipping all deputies with body cameras.

At its Tuesday work session, the five-member Rice County Board of Commissioners signaled support for buying 50 body cameras. Sheriff Troy Dunn told the board that should be enough for every member of the department to have one, with a couple to spare.

Dunn has urged the county board to provide funding for the cameras for several years. But faced with tight budgets, the board saw the initiative as valuable but non-essential, and funding was removed late in its budget process. Now, Dunn and County Administrator Sara Folsted said that more funding is available. Ironically, Dunn noted that the department has in some ways benefited from the COVID crisis, which enabled it to save some money.

Rice County has dipped its toes in the water already, purchasing new “dash cam” cameras from WatchGuard Technologies. He said that those cameras have worked very well, helping to provide additional peace of mind for both officers and the public.

For the body cameras, Dunn said that purchasing again from WatchGuard again makes the most sense. In addition to ensuring that footage can be easily synced between the dash and body cameras, having both sets of cameras from the same company could streamline storage.

While Rice County may have held back on embracing the body cameras, Faribault embraced the technology in early 2019. Like the Sheriff’s Department, Northfield’s Police Department hasn’t managed to get funding for cameras yet despite repeated requests. Last month, two Northfield councilors appeared unconvinced that that city needs police cameras, with one suggesting that the American Civil Liberties Union opposes body cameras.

The ACLU supports the use of body cameras, but advocates for strong policies regarding their use that simultaneously “protect privacy and promote police oversight.

Mar Valdecantos, the vice chair of Northfield’s Human Rights Commission, said that she was supportive of the move, though she was quick to add she hopes it will be accompanied by additional and continued efforts to improve police-community relations.

“Whatever any department can do in terms of accountability is great,” she said. “We all have a responsibility to take a look at how systemic racism occurs.”

Dunn said that watching the experiences of other cities that have already acquired body cameras has highlighted potential risks and pitfalls of the technology — no issue more prominently than storage concerns.

Much to their consternation, departments which rented storage space from an outside firm too often find themselves trapped in increasingly costly contracts. Dunn said he’s aware of one department that found itself on the hook for a $1.2 million storage bill.

To avoid that kind of expense, the county will handle storage itself, at an initial layout of $50,000. In addition to that, $83,000 will be required upfront to purchase the cameras, along with just under $10,000 per year for ongoing maintenance. In order to take care of the data, the county will have to hire a part time staffer. Dunn said that the hire would be necessary even if the county outsourced actual data storage to an outside company, and that he’s confident the county itself can handle the entire task itself.

Just how long the video footage will be stored depends on what exactly occurred in the footage. A routine traffic stop could be deleted after just three months, while a DWI would be preserved for a year, an officer-involved shooting much longer.

The plan hasn’t been approved just yet. Because Tuesday’s meeting was a work session, no binding decision could be made, but commissioners said they intend to pass a resolution at next week’s meeting that would call a public hearing on the matter for Sept. 22.

“This is something that has been a few years coming … and I think it’s a good idea,” said Commissioner Galen Malecha. “It really helps to protect you.”