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COVID-19 making changes, backlogs the norm for region's courts
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Though regional legal professionals have become more adept at handling remote hearings brought on by COVID-19, a state pause on criminal jury trials until at least March will likely leave a backlog well after the heavily burdened court systems returns to normal following the pandemic.

Rice County Attorney John Fossum noted there are more than 200 jury trials the county’s court administration office is working to reschedule. He noted that in most instances, six or seven jury trials are scheduled on a weekly basis but only one or two make it that far without a settlement being reached. Still, he anticipates a long-term backlog due to the pandemic.

“It’s always a moving target, and more cases come in all the time,” he said.

“It’s going to be a larger than normal backlog for some time.”

Prosecutors and defense attorneys both say a prolonged timeframe can harm their cases by shifting their focus to multiple legal files at once. Defendants can feel the burden of a court case for a longer time, and victims have to live with the realization that the alleged perpetrator has yet to be punished.

Fossum said Rice County could bring in judges from other counties or have retired judges work temporarily to ease that backlog, but doing so doesn’t negate the limits on space. The county has four courtrooms, all too small to accommodate a jury trial with social distancing. Space in the county office building next to the courthouse converted to a temporary courtroom can again be used when the court system reopens, giving the county additional space. But it still has only three judges chambered in Faribault.

Despite those limitations, Fossum, who is in his seventh year as county attorney, said the court system is just as busy as ever. The Rice County Attorney’s Office has had nearly as many criminal vehicular homicide cases in September and December — two — than in the rest of Fossum’s tenure. He attributes that to more people driving at a higher speeds, fearing the legal consequences, and an increase in drug and alcohol use during the pandemic.

‘We’ve learned a lot’

Steele County Court Administrator Robin Hoesley said the county’s focus since the start of the pandemic has been keeping the courts open and accessible while prioritizing safety, an approach she acknowledged has been “a delicate balance.” She noted the county has worked with additional temporary staff who are being utilized to be Zoom hosts, adding she was fortunate to not have vacancies following a hiring freeze instituted following the onset of the pandemic. That pause has since been lifted, allowing staff to fill open positions.

Court administration staff is now sending notices to those involved with court cases that include Zoom meeting information, a departure from what traditionally had been an in-person process.

“We’re doing our best to stay on top of the work and keep the system going,” Hoesley said.

She acknowledged that “it’s really almost impossible” to know how long court restrictions will last due to ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic. In March, 40 jury trials are scheduled in Steele County. That number drops to 29 in April, 30 in May and nine in June. Hoesley also anticipates that a number of those cases will likely be resolved before a jury trial begins.

Once Rice County court administrators realized they couldn’t hold traditional in-person jury trials, they worked with county leaders to create a the fifth courtroom. That approach proved fruitful until November, when in-person courts were again shut down, a measure health officials said were needed to prevent the spread of the virus. The courts won’t open again until at least March 15. Even when jury trials were allowed in Rice County, there were a couple cases where the proceedings were delayed due to someone being exposed to the virus. In one case, a mistrial was declared.

Court Administrator Lisa Kuhlman said Rice County District Court had “a considerable amount of backlog” immediately following the onset of the first state shutdown. However, since then, that backlog has been reduced to mainly just in-person jury trials until at least March 15, unless the defendant awaiting trial is in custody or is seeking a speedy process, or, in some instances, the type of criminal charges a person faces. All other hearings have been rescheduled.

Online hearings are reportedly becoming easier to administer. To Kuhlman, county administrators have “done a tremendous job of adapting to that.”

Kuhlman said online meetings have reduced the number of failures to appear amongst defendants, lessened transportation challenges and increased the number of people appearing for their hearings.

“It’s going actually better than expected,” she said. “At first there was a lot to learn.”

Even after the pandemic subsides, she anticipates Rice County District Court will continue to offer online hearings in some instances, like civil and family cases and those with long travel times for relatively short hearings.

In Waseca County, a one-judge county where online court hearings are now also the norm, Court Administrator Shannon Asselin also said the court system no longer has a backlog other than for criminal/civil trials, a development she said could be possible due to the relatively small size of the county and lack of jury trials. Court administration has created a self-help center for clients to use the remote hearing system.

“We’ve been able to meet this challenge too because we’ve had the help of our justice partners,” Asselin said.

‘It’s not ideal’

Though Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh believes remote hearings brought on by the pandemic are “not ideal,” including one recent instance when a phone died and caused a one-day delay in a court hearing, he noted there isn’t a major backlog other than cases set for jury trials. He noted in the initial stages of the pandemic, the court system couldn’t process the regular number of cases while undertaking exclusively online hearings. However, McIntosh noted participants have adapted.

Still, McIntosh, a self-described “creature of habit,” said online hearings have resulted in the loss of some non-verbal aspects of in-person court hearings. Also, waiting times before court appearances can give lawyers the chance to communicate with each other. The court system has hired an online moderator to help with technological glitches.

‘The court moves at its own pace’

Faribault-based lawyer John Hamer immediately thought remote court hearings would be “a big problem,” last March. Since then, Hamer has noticed the changes have forced him to work more outside of the courtroom/courthouse setting. He said handling business over the phone and via electronic filing has proven to be more efficient.

The court system has undergone “a pretty broad adaptation” to utilize technology during hearings. Because of that adaptation, Hamer also expects some of the technological components to be used once the pandemic ends. He said courts are still reluctant to call juries for non-criminal cases because of the continuing pandemic, causing a backlog to develop. To him, the court system should have adopted the changes COVID-19 eventually wrought before last spring, adding that doing so might have reduced any backlogs and saved some law firms that have shuttered over the last 11 months.

Hamer suggested court administrators consider hiring interim judges to handle remote cases and enable flexibility to reduce the burden the pandemic has brought on the justice system.

In noting the unprecedented levels of stress many Americans have felt during the pandemic, Hamer said he has stressed to his clients that despite the anxiety posed by seemingly never-ending cases, they can rely on him to shoulder the burden of the system.

“The court moves at its own pace,” he said of what he tells his clients.

Steele County Judge Karen Duncan said the pandemic has made work harder for staff. Initially, case clearance rates were initially in the 30% range, but that has since more than doubled.

Duncan, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton in March 2013, says some find online difficult to manage while others have an easier time.

Duncan has found herself spending more time on administrative work instead of focusing on hearing cases, conducting research and drafting orders. That’s not true for everyone. Fellow judges have told her that they have lost sleep and are also spending more time on the administrative/technical aspects of the position.

However, she said remote hearings are having some benefits. Anecdotally speaking, she said more people who are not directly involved in the trial now feel more comfortable listening into hearings because of the elimination of travel time and ease in doing so. Still, Steele County courtrooms are open if visitors wear masks.

Following FHS's example, middle school adopts its own necessities store
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When Faribault High School students built The Nest, a store offering necessities at no cost to students, they knew the project would benefit Falcons for years to come.

As it turns out, The Nest didn’t stay exclusive to FHS for long. Taking a page out of the FHS playbook, the middle school has launched its own version of The Nest.

Operating since August 2019, The Nest at FHS has provided students with a safe and personal space where they can pick up items they need, whether it’s a ruler for math class or a Falcon T-shirt to wear for school spirit week.

Following the success of the high school’s project, the Faribault Middle School Advisory team of Counselor Brent Hawkins, Guidance Counselor April Geiger and Social Worker Amanda McColl launched a similar project at their own building. Faribault Middle School Counselor Brent Hawkins announced during the Faribault School Board meeting held Jan. 25 that The Mini Nest at the middle school is up and fully functioning.

“Between the donations from the middle school teaching staff, some community members and our students, we transformed part of our counseling center at the middle school, and we now have our own Nest with loaded down school supplies, hygiene supplies, clothing and even some food now,” Hawkins said.

Students at Faribault Middle School can go to The Nest to grab different hygiene products they may not have on hand. (Photo courtesy of Faribault Middle School)

One of the major functions of The Nest is to give students who can’t afford items specific items a private space to “shop” away from onlookers. Both versions of The Nest operate on an honor system and require no payment, so being able to afford products is a non-issue.

At both schools, students can go to The Nest to grab deodorant, shampoo, and other personal hygiene products. Students can also find winter wear like gloves, mittens, hats and scarves. Another main objective of The Nest is to increase student participation and school spirit, which is why the shelves also contain a variety of Falcon attire. During school spirit theme days during homecoming, students can then find what they need at The Nest.

While the middle school has always found ways to support students, Hawkins said the school didn’t have an actual space for storing items until The Mini Nest came along. He added that Faribault Community Education Director Anne Marie Leland and the high school itself have established connections to keep the store up and running.

These supply drawers in The Nest contains items like school supplies, loose leaf paper, calculators, folders, pencil pouches and locker supplies. (Photo courtesy of Faribault Middle School)

“It’s not as big as the high school’s, but it will get the job done,” Hawkins said of The Mini Nest.

The Mini Nest is currently well stocked with clothing items, and the fastest items to go are hygiene products. Community members may make donations to The Mini Nest by contacting Hawkins at bhawkins@faribault.k12.mn.us or simply dropping items off at Faribault Middle School.

Building The Nest

The Nest at FHS began after two students, who have since graduated, developed the concept during summer 2018. They involved their Family and Consumer Science teacher Kaylee Wiens and two more students in bringing the store to life with furniture, decorations and a fun paint job. The Falcon Project then became a club students could join if they wanted to help operate The Nest.

FHS Assistant Principal Joe Sage thanks the community, sponsors and Faribault Community Education for lifting The Nest off the ground. Under the direction of Anne Marie Leland, Sage said Community Education has been one of the biggest supporters of The Nest by providing space and resources.

Donations for The Nest continue to come in steady, Sage said, and an expansion to allow for more clothing racks, and a possible food shelf, is in the works.

“Our partnerships with the community continue to get stronger,” Sage said. “The entire high school staff and team are appreciative of the generous donations that have continued to come in. I would say we have felt overwhelming support from staff and students since day one, and that support continues to come in. We’re very excited that The Mini Nest is in play, so the support has been continuous at a secondary level.”

Faribault, Owatonna look to fill lifeguard openings
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While the weather outside may be frigid, community pools are already looking to recruit lifeguards for the summer in hopes of getting back on track after a difficult 2020.

In Faribault, the Parks and Recreation Department’s Aquatics Supervisor, Kevin O’Brien, recently announced a series of lifeguard training classes slated for the months of March, April, and May, to the city website.

While he regularly hires lifeguards, O’Brien said that the need is particularly great right now. That’s because in a normal year, the Parks and Recreation Department would be able to rely on lifeguards returning from last year — but that’s not the case this time.With the Faribault Aquatic Center closed last year due to COVID, O’Brien said that he might need to hire close to double the number of lifeguards he’d hire in a normal season. So far, the department plans to be fully staffed for the summer.

While taking and passing the course doesn’t guarantee a job, it’s required if you want to work as a lifeguard for the city. In addition to training lifeguards for its own pools, Faribault’s sizable facilities enable it to train lifeguards who go on to work in neighboring cities, too.

In addition to the lifeguard training course, Faribault is also offering a lifeguard instructor course and reviews of both the lifeguard training and instructor courses, which are half-price compared to the original course.

Prerequisites include an ability to swim 300 yards, and swim 20 yards, retrieve a 10-pound object and return to the starting point. In addition to the in-person course, trainees are required to complete one week of online learning.

While it hasn’t been easy, the Red Cross-certified courses have been adapted to ensure COVID safety. While some skills have to be practiced in closer proximity, O’Brien said that every effort is made to achieve as much social distancing as possible.

Getting a constant stream of “fresh blood” into the lifeguard program is particularly important since courses are open to anyone over the age of 15 with the physical stamina needed to complete the course, most lifeguards are in their teens or early 20s.

Henry Schonebaum, a Faribault High School junior who’s worked as a lifeguard for the last two years, said that he’s had a great experience as a lifeguard for the Parks and Recreation Department and has invited several of his friends to join.

Schonebaum said he likes that hours are regularly available and the commitment is flexible. He also appreciates the department’s commitment to COVID safety, which includes limiting the number of participants in each swimming lesson.

In Owatonna, Recreation Supervisor Dani Licht said that her department isn’t quite as short on staff because unlike Faribault the city opened its outdoor pool last summer. However, she indicated that there is still definitely a need for new lifeguards.

Owatonna is currently offering five lifeguard courses, spread out from February to June and at a slightly higher price than Faribault’s. Unlike Faribault, it doesn’t offer the review courses or a lifeguard instructor class.

As in Faribault, face masks and social distancing are the norm for Owatonna’s lifeguard classes. Licht said that the Red Cross’s comprehensive safety guide makes the task of running safe classes easier.

“Students are definitely picking up on the guidelines quickly and classes are being run safely,” she said.