Two weeks into August, COVID-19 cases in Southern Minnesota have slowed since spikes in July, but local officials say this pandemic is far from over.
Le Sueur County bore the brunt of a cluster of coronavirus cases last month. In July, the county saw 112 new cases, more than it had seen the previous four months combined. However, on Aug. 13, the county reported 43 new cases in August, behind the first two weeks of July.
“I’m hoping with the mask mandate, we will see some improvement or maybe some decrease in numbers,” said Le Sueur County Public Health Director Cindy Shaughnessy. “That’s my hope is that people wear masks when they are out and about and they social distance.”
However, public health officials are still uncertain on the long-term trajectory of COVID-19 case numbers. Even if this month’s cases don’t outpace July’s, there have already been more confirmed cases reported in the first two weeks of August in Le Sueur County than in the months of June, May, April and March.
“This is far from over,” said Shaughnessy. “One of our concerns is, as we’re going to go into the flu season, really encouraging people to get a flu shot. If we see cases go down, I think it will be in relation to some of these simple measures that we keep stressing: the masks, the social distancing, the handwashing. I hope that can be a trend that we see going forward.”
In neighboring counties, some public health officials, like Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron, have said that all indicators show that Minnesota, including the southeast part of the state, is on the verge of the second wave of novel coronavirus cases.
“For a while, we were kind of in a lull,” Caron said about the cases in Steele County, which sat at a cumulative 334 cases Aug. 5, with about 244 out of isolation and one person who has been hospitalized for the three weeks.
“… it has definitely started to pick up slightly, and if you look at the overall Minnesota stats … the positivity rate is inching up.”
In Rice County, Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Tracy Ackman-Shaw said that data from recent have shown a dip in new daily cases, going from up to 10 a day to now seeing a few per day. Ackman-Shaw noted that Rice County even saw a day recently where no new cases were reported.
“Before, we had kind of a lot of young adults among our confirmed cases and there were concerns about bars and restaurants adding to the spread,” Ackman-Shaw said. “We have seen that slow down, and now there isn’t as much of a boom in one age group; it’s just kind of across the board, but our average age is still a bit younger, at 35 years old, for new cases in the last weeks.”
Younger demographics continue to be a major area of concern for the whole state. In Le Sueur County, 20-29 year olds make up the largest share of confirmed cases. The county has found 60 cases in that age range as of Aug. 13, followed by 43 cases among 50-59-year-olds and 35 cases among 6-19-year-olds. Last July, around 100 cases in Minnesota had been linked to young adults visiting multiple bars in Mankato, which led local counties to reach out to bars and restaurants about health guidelines and young people about the risks associated with spreading the coronavirus.
Caron has found that age group harder to reach and convince that COVID-19 is a serious threat that puts them and others at risk. She said she is thankful for the mask mandate in hopes that it will create better habits for those in their 20s and 30s.
“The state mask mandate has been very helpful in normalizing wearing a mask a little bit,” Caron said. “It shows everyone that it’s OK to wear a mask, that it’s not a freak thing to walk into a store with one on, and that everyone’s doing it.”
“Masks and source control really do work in keeping the droplets from yourself from reaching other people,” said Shaughnessy. “If everyone is wearing a mask and keeping those droplets in that really can make a difference.”
“I think everyone wants to see our businesses stay open and everyone wants to see our kids back at school,” she continued. “But without a vaccine that’s about all we can do right is to try and slow that transmission.”
Informing people of the importance of wearing masks is what Ackman-Shaw identifies as the biggest concern in Rice County regarding COVID-19 at the moment, noting that even if people are outside they should consider wearing a mask if they’re with a group of people. Though it is not required to wear a mask when outside, Ackman-Shaw said that it still help prevent the spread — especially if people aren’t adhering to the 6-foot social distancing guideline.
“We understand that it’s hard work to always have a mask with you, and that it’s hard because people are fatigued and tired of having to live while following these rules and tired of hearing about COVID. We get that,” Ackman-Shaw said. “But we don’t want people to underestimate how awful this disease can be for many, many people, including their own friends, families and neighbors.”
All the public health officials echoed that the coronavirus would impact us locally for the long haul.
“We just don’t know what the future holds,” said Shaughnessy. “I think our health experts and infectious disease experts are saying that this is far from over and we can expect to be dealing with this for many months until we can get a vaccine.”
Cleveland Public Schools will open its doors this fall with a new kind of learning.
At an Aug. 10 meeting, the Cleveland Public School Board approved a plan to provide in-person instruction to grades K-6 and implement a hybrid learning model for grades 7-12. Under state executive order, public school districts were required to draft in-person, hybrid and distance learning models and choose a model in partnership with state and local health officials based on county COVID-19 data.
Elementary students will attend classes five days a week this fall under the in-person model, but the schedule for grades 7-12 will look much different. Students on a hybrid model will be on a rotating schedule and split into two groups based on their last names: Group A and Group B. Each group will be in school two days a week while distance learning three days a week, with one group in class on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group attending Thursdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, both groups will be distance learning so that the school staff can perform deep cleaning in the facility.
These requirements are in place to keep classrooms at the maximum 50% capacity required by the state for hybrid learning. While half the class is at their desks, the other half will be fed a livestream of the class from home and mark their attendance through Google Meets.
Students in special education under the hybrid model will attend classes four days a week and students with individualized learning plans such as an IHP, IEP or 504 plan will be in school daily if medically feasible.
Preschoolers will attend school two days a week on either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday.
Any student that does not wish to attend school in-person may participate in distance learning instead.
The in-person/hybrid learning plan was recommended by Superintendent Brian Phillips based on COVID-19 case numbers in Le Sueur County as well as Blue Earth and Nicollet counties. Le Sueur County had between 10-19 cases per 10,000 people within the past two weeks and Blue Earth and Nicollet County case numbers were even higher. Those numbers are cause for an in-person/hybrid model under Minnesota Department of Health parameters.
“Everybody here should know that we all want the kids to be in school full time everyday. We really, really want that 100%” said Phillips. “But we have to do it in a manner in which we are ensuring the safety of all students, staff and the community since these children are going home. We’re doing the best we can here and we know there is no one single answer that will make everybody happy, but safety is our number one priority.”
Under the learning plan, classrooms will be restricted to necessary items and teaching tools. Rugs, couches and other non-standard furniture will be removed to make space for desks to be seated six feet apart.
Elementary students will remain in one classroom for the entire day to reduce exposure. High school students will still travel between classes, but will be required to social distance. Signage will be placed throughout the halls as a reminder.
Classes outside the regular classroom will come with some restrictions. Due to space requirements, the band room will only be able to hold 15 in-person learners at a time or 10 hybrid learners wile maintaining 8 feet of distance to accommodate instruments. Choir classes for elementary students will not be held at all.
Art, agriculture and STEAM classes will be in separate classes. Cooking classes will be held, but actual cooking in school will not be allowed. Physical education will take place outside or in the classroom with social distance guidelines enforced and locker rooms will not be used.
Under new safety guidelines, families, students and staff will be required to fill out online Google Forms to monitor COVID-19 symptoms before leaving for school. At the entrance, screeners will monitor students for visual signs of symptoms and conduct random temperature screenings with no-contact thermometers. Those with a temperature greater than 100 degrees will not be allowed to enter.
Staff will conduct deep cleaning of facilities and equipment. Common areas and bathrooms will be cleaned three times a day, other facilities will be cleaned once a day and the computer lab will be cleaned every period.
Under the Minnesota mask mandate, students, teachers, staff and visitors must wear face masks while inside the building. Exceptions are available for people with medical documentation.
Open enrollment is being limited to maintain capacity. From Aug. 10 onward, the district is not accepting new students from outside the district, but those that expressed interest by Aug. 10 will still be considered for enrollment. This policy will be reevaluated once the new building is opened.
If a case of COVID-19 is detected at school, the district has multiple protocols in place. A case traced to just one class would require the school to quarantine the class for 10-14 days. Multiple cases would lead the school to shut down for distance learning.
In the event of an outbreak, Superintendent Phillips is authorized to switch the school to a different learning model after consultation with the School Board Chair. The learning model implemented would continue until the School Board approves a different model in consultation with the Superintendent and district and public health officials.
“Parents, it’s going to be difficult,” said Principal Scott Lusk. “If one day all of a sudden we have to go all in to distance learning because of the breakout, we can’t control those types of things. I hope you understand that’s not us doing that, that’s just the nature of this unprecedented time.”
Several parents who attended the school board meeting pushed the school for in-person learning. Some raised frustrations that the school board wasn’t given enough freedom by the state to make their own decisions and opposed the mask mandate. One parent, Mike Wilker, said that he would be taking his two children out of the district because of the mask policy.
“For the first week it’s going to be nothing but fear,” said Wilker. “Fear that there’s a virus around, fear that they’re somehow sick and they’re going to spread it to their friends — they have to stay six feet away from each other. I can’t describe it any other way other than abusive.”
Others were more encouraging of the hybrid model.
“We are supporting the hybrid model and masks,” said Jasmin Boelter. “We also have families that are high risk. My kids are feeling positive about school and want to come back safely.”
Superintendent Phillips stated that he made his recommendation to the School Board based on public health data and the feedback he had received from the community.
“When we talked to students, when we talked to parents, when we talked to staff and teachers everybody pretty much told us the same thing,” said Phillips. “They would love to be back here and we couldn’t disagree with them. Our secondary students, mostly seniors that we talked to … they wanted to be back in person, but all of them recognized that may not be the model that makes the most sense.”
The School Board approved Phillips’ recommendation 4-1 with School Board Member Ron McCabe dissenting.
The Minnesota legislature’s third special session of the year was brief but eventful.
The Aug. 12 session lasted just a few hours, but saw $30 million allocated to disability service providers, Labor Commissioner Nancy Leppink ousted by the Republican-controlled Senate, and Gov. Tim Walz’ emergency powers continue despite GOP protest.
Emergency powers continue
Republicans in the House and Senate have long taken issue with Gov. Tim Walz’ use of peacetime emergency powers employed during the COVID-19 pandemic and GOP members in the House and Senate both brought resolutions calling for the powers to be suspended. The resolution passed in the Republican-controlled Senate, but was blocked by the Democratic majority in the House, allowing the peacetime emergency to continue for another 30 days.
After declaring a state of emergency in March, Walz has used his emergency powers to ramp up testing, build up PPE and set a moratorium on evictions. However, other measures have been the subject of controversy, including the shutdown of businesses and schools, new state guidelines for schools to reopen in the fall and the indoor mask mandate.
Controversy over the governor’s use of emergency powers has also been tied into the debate over the $2 billion bonding bill to fund state infrastructure projects, including a lift of Hwy. 93 to prevent the roadway leading into Henderson from flooding. During the July legislative session, the bonding bill was passed in the Senate but failed in the House when the Republican minority refused to support the bill until the peacetime emergency was ended.
Rep. Bob Vogel, R-Elko New Market, who covers much of Le Sueur County, said that the Republican opposition was based on protecting the separation of powers.
“Assuming that the governor signs [the bonding bill], then the executive branch — the governor — is charged with actually spending money that was appropriated by the Legislature,” said Vogel. “Right now, with the executive powers, that separation of powers doesn’t exist, because he can pretty much do as he pleases especially with policy, and to some extent, spending as well. If we’re going to pass a bonding bill, then we should have the normal constitutional voice in the finances of the state.”
Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, said that ending the peacetime emergency to pass the bonding bill was a non-starter. Both he and Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, also covering St. Peter, said that the issue shouldn’t be tied to the bonding bill and that Walz had tried to compromise by offering 30 executive orders to legislative control.
“One thing that I don’t think we can share is the expediency of the governor’s ability to send 20,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to a place overnight,” said Frentz. “The definition of emergency means that it requires immediate action and I think the governor has made a good faith effort to try and find a compromise.“
Brand said that Walz had attempted to accommodate opponents of his emergency powers and that the governor was slow on actions, such as the mask mandate, which 30 states had implemented before Minnesota.
“The majority of people in my district support what the governor is doing, they support masking,” said Brand. “It should be non-political. It should be about protecting your neighbors and your community.”
The bonding bill was not discussed at the August session, because the state is currently issuing bonds. Once the state has finished bonding, the bill may come up again in future sessions, but legislators’ reactions were mixed on its chances. Frentz believed it was more likely than not that the bill would pass this year, but Brand was dour on the bill’s chances, believing that a compromise would not be reached until after the election. Freshman Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, covering Le Sueur County, was uncertain, but criticized Gov. Walz and Democratic senators for not supporting a $1 billion version of the bill advanced by Republican senators back in May.
“It’s frustrating when the governor will have staff visit with people that do the rent strike and people tearing down statues and people protesting and looting, but he won’t visit with us,” said Draheim. “It’s disappointing.”
In a rare move, the Minnesota Senate voted down the confirmation of a member of Tim Walz’ cabinet: Labor Commissioner Nancy Leppink. In a party line vote, the Republican majority ousted Leppink, citing issues that she was too harsh and restrictive on business owners.
Draheim called Leppink more of a political operative than a commissioner, saying that she was difficult to work with. One issue the state senator took with Leppink was her refusal to sign off on previously applicable waivers for teen workers at amusement parks
“Most of my bills were to get people working to try and find some kind of compromise to get a balanced bill. She didn’t seem interested in working with us or anybody for that matter,” said Draheim. “And when I say anybody, I mean trade groups, industries — it’s pretty sad when you have to pass a bill to allow 16- to 17-year-olds to mow a lawn. That’s the craziness that we faced with that agency after she took over.”
The firing raised ire among state Democrats as well as labor groups which referred to Leppink’s termination as an ambush. Sen. Frentz said that the Senate’s action was a surprise and unsupported by outside groups.
“We were not given any warning that the motion would be brought, which is unusual,” said Frentz. “Commissioner Leppink also had the support of working men and women across Minnesota, including, but not limited to, organized labor, like AFL-CIO, manufacturing, law enforcement, carpenters, sheet metal workers — they had all written letters to the Senate saying ‘Please confirm her’ … I haven’t seen a single letter saying not to support her.”
Rep. Brand accused Senate Republicans of firing Leppink as an attack on the governor’s office to bend Walz into giving up his emergency powers. The representative also said that Senate Republicans were playing with lives by forcing Leppink’s ouster in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leppink had taken on numerous responsibilities during the pandemic, including oversight of the reopening of meatpacking plants and distribution of PPE supplies for essential workers.
“It’s going to provide a lot of poison in the well that we all drink out of up here and I think that’s going to lead to no bonding bill, no supplemental budget bill and I think the Senate is trying to do as much collateral damage against our governor, because the peacetime emergency’s not going away,” said Brand.
Draheim rebuffed the charge that the firing was a surprise, citing a private meeting between Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and Tim Walz in February where Gazelka said he told the governor that he was opposed to her confirmation.
“I think there’s enough issues to justify what we did and why we did,” said Draheim. “It’s never fun to eliminate someone’s job. It’s not something you want to do, but unfortunately we have to.“
Disability service funding
The most significant piece of legislation to come out of the special session was a bill co-authored by Brand and a bipartisan group of House members calling for $30 million in grants toward disability service providers. Groups like MRCI in Mankato, which provide adult day services and employment opportunities to people with developmental disabilities, have fallen into severe financial troubles during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many, including Le Sueur County Developmental Services had already been shut down permanently under financial pressure, but Brand hoped the bill would be a lifeline to remaining service providers.
“We’re going to keep folks, like MRCI and Lifeworks, in a position where they are able to continue to exist,” said Brand. “MRCI started in the 1950s as a result of the polio epidemic in the United States, so it’s hard for us to see an organization like them start up in a pandemic and disappear in a different pandemic. A lot of people, including a family member of mine, uses these day services to give himself, and others just like him, independence and life skills that they need to be self-supporting.”
The legislation had been held up in previous special sessions. Rep. Vogel was critical of the bill being held up in the prior sessions and said that the legislation had come too late for many providers. Brand said that the House was working with finite financial resources while allocating CARES Act dollars and that many items, including financial support for schools, were a higher priority for the House. The state representative pointed at the Trump administration for a lack of federal support for disability service providers.