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A health care worker takes a swab from a client at the drive-up COVID-19 testing site. (Photo by Paul Battaglia)

Protesters in Le Center, St. Peter rally to 'Save the Post Office'

Nationwide protests to expand funding to the Post Office and reverse controversial changes reached local communities, including Le Center and St. Peter. On Saturday, independent activists, along with Indivisible St.Peter/Greater Mankato, rallied outside their local post offices for #SavethePostOffice Saturday, a national movement supported by MoveOn, the NAACP and other activist organizations.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Amy Pfau (left) and Allison Schmitt (right) held a rally outside the Le Center Post Office in support of postal workers and reversing new postal service policies. The two worried about the effect mail delays would have on ballot access as well as access to social security checks and veteran’s benefits. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

“The Post Office has been under threat from certain parts of our nation for a long time,” said Allison Schmitt, a Le Center resident who participated in a two-women protest outside the Le Center Post Office. “Especially during the pandemic, people in small towns like Le Center have learned how much we rely on the Postal Service, because some other delivery services don’t come out to our areas, and we just wanted to show our support for the Post Office and encourage Congress to fully fund it.”

The protests have emerged in response to reported delays in mail delivery across the country following cost-cutting measures instituted by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Appointed by President Donald Trump in May, DeJoy swiftly carried sweeping changes, including the elimination of staff overtime, decommissioning mail sorting equipment, removing mail boxes, and instructing letter carriers to begin their routes and return on time even if it meant leaving mail behind.

The changes have been rebuked by Democrats and some Republicans, citing the necessity of delivering ballots and medication to communities on time. On Aug. 18, the state of Minnesota joined a coalition of 14 states filing a federal lawsuit against the Postal Service alleging that the new measures would undermine the upcoming election and disproportionately hurt rural communities and communities of color.

The lawsuit file by State Attorney General Keith Ellison claims that recent changes have slowed down USPS sorting capacity in the Twin Cities by approximately 100,000 to 200,000 pieces of mail per hour. The state has also cited incidents of Minnesotans facing delayed delivery of medication, facemasks and absentee ballots ahead of the Aug. 11 primary election. Many of the residents who requested absentee ballots were at higher risk for COVID-19, making it difficult to vote in-person, the state reported.

The changes to the Post Office have come under intense scrutiny for their potential impact on the election. DeJoy’s motivations have been questioned by Democrats due to his history as a major GOP donor and his lack of experience working with the Post Office.

Those concerns escalated after President Trump told a reporter earlier this month that he was blocking a relief package to the Postal Service on the basis that it would allow the agency to support mail-in voting. Trump has criticized mail-in voting for being susceptible to fraud, but election officials have said there is no evidence to support such claims.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Protesters gathered in St. Peter, Mankato, Le Center and nationwide to protest recent cost-cutting measures to the Postal Service which have slowed down mail deliveries. (Carsin Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

“We’re concerned that ballots are not going to be at that top priority level, which means they may not make it in on time to be counted.” said Kristie Campana, an organizer behind the Indivisible protest at the St. Peter Post Office. “They have the capacity, but we’re very concerned this year that they’re going to have a lot of absentee ballots they need to process and they need to have funding for that.”

In response to criticism and state lawsuits, DeJoy on Thursday that he was suspending several reforms to Post Office procedure to avoid any appearances that they would impact the election. DeJoy said that retail hours would not change, mail processing equipment, mailboxes and mail processing facilities would remain and that overtime would be approved as needed. However, sorting machines, mailboxes and other mail infrastructure, which have already been removed, will not be reinstated. DeJoy has defended these reforms as necessary to keep the agency from losing money. The postmaster general has also said that cutting mail equipment was appropriate due declines in postal service usage.

Over the weekend, DeJoy testified to Congress that ballots would be a top priority in mail delivery and that the Post Office was equipped to handle mail-in ballots. Protesters were skeptical of those assurances and believed additional funding was necessary, not just for elections, but for public health and local business.

“The Post Office serves an absolutely vital role in getting people their social security checks, serving rural areas,” said Amy Pfau, a member of the Le Center protest.

At the St. Peter and Mankato protests, which drew in approximately 50 people each, members of the community spoke personally on how the slow downs had impacted them. Those included business owners, who saw mail delayed so long they had to replace the products they ordered.

“Today we had a speaker that talked about how she’s never had a problem getting her mail, and now she has people waiting two weeks for something that would have been delivered on time,” said Campana. “So even locally, in St. Peter, we’re seeing these slow downs.”

Protesters also said they had heard from postal workers directly on the toll the changes had taken. Yurie Hong, a member of the Indivisible activist group, said she had talked with postal workers that were finding to more difficult to sort through the mail on time because of the changes. Sometimes important packages, including live animals, could not be delivered on time.

“Picking up those crates where you’re supposed to know there are live animals in there and hearing no sounds and no movement, it’s emotionally difficult knowing you’re carrying, delivering packages of dead animals,” said Hong. “So there’s another emotional toll to that, I think.”

To address concerns related to the Post Office, the United States Senate held a hearing on Friday receiving testimony from DeJoy. On Saturday, the House convened to pass a bill allocating $25 billion to the Postal Service and suspending recent changes. House Democrats and more than two dozen House Republicans supported the bill, but the White House and Senate majority has been critical of the bill for not providing wider coronavirus relief to small businesses.

Earlier in the week, the president and Senate leadership had thrown support behind a proposal to allocate $10 billion to the Postal Service as part of a larger coronavirus relief package. The $25 billion in the House bill was originally part of a $3 trillion COVID relief bill that failed to net support from the Senate.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, this is for everybody,” said Hong.

Le Sueur volunteer celebrates 99th birthday with Treasures in Town

Le Sueur resident Agnes Milam is no quitter. She’s traveled across the world, volunteered habitually at various organizations in Le Sueur, cared for others young and old, and on Thursday, Milam walked into a surprise 99th birthday party put together by her fellow volunteers at Treasures in Town Thrift Store in Le Sueur.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Agnes Milam’s fellow volunteers at Treasures in Town prepared her a square of lemon cake for her 99th birthday. Milam has made every one of her 99 years count from living in foreign countries to traveling all across the 50 states to serving the Le Sueur community through her volunteer efforts. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

Ahead of her actual 99th birthday on Monday, Milam was surprised by her fellow volunteers with lemon cake and zucchini bread and a congratulatory rendition of “Happy Birthday.” The ladies of Treasure in Town all came together to support a fellow volunteer that had been with the thrift store before it was even called Treasures in Town.

Milam started her volunteer work in the Le Sueur community in 2001, shortly after moving to town in 1999 and has remained an active member ever since. She’s volunteered at the Le Sueur Food Shelf, Salvation Army, the Le Sueur United Methodist Church and Ridgeview Nursing Home and Rehab Center. When she’s not volunteering at Treasures in Town, chances are she’s volunteering somewhere else.

“When she leaves the Thursday shift, she’ll usually say ‘Welp, I’m going to my next job,’” said Treasures in Town volunteer Marci Allen.

“It gives me something to do,” said Milam. “It gets me out of my apartment and I’m helping people. I enjoy doing it.”

Milam has never been much of a homebody. Prior to moving to Le Sueur, she and her husband Joe spent 15 years traveling through all 50 states in an RV as part of a motor home homeowners association. While out on the road, Milam helped establish several chapters, and the couple attended conventions made up of regional clubs for RV owners. Beyond the states, Milam also had the opportunity to live in Austria and Panama. Through her many travels, Milam couldn’t claim a favorite.

“It’s always something new, every state has its attractions and drawbacks,” said Milam. “It’s not the place, it’s the people. The best part is when you can stop for coffee ask questions about it. I’ve always enjoyed meeting people.”

While on her travels Milam had plenty of fun and the motorhome association was known for having a mischievous streak. She recalled a time a husband and wife had mice in their RV. While his wife was away, the husband cooked up some rice and coated in chocolate and dumped the imitation rat droppings across the silverware for his wife to discover with a scream.

“A lot of tricks were played,” said Milam. “You never knew if you were going to do something to someone else or if someone was going to do something to you.”

The many people she’s met over the years imparted an important lesson on Milam: there are good people in all walks of life.

“We would get surprised when someone would tell us who they were,” said Milam on the people she met in the motorhome association. “Nobody cared if you were a garbage collector or CEO. Everybody had a good time no matter what.”

Milam left life on the road behind when Joe died and she moved to Le Sueur to help her son raise her grandkids. Four of her six grandchildren live in Le Sueur today and she has great-grandchildren attending Le Sueur-Henderson. While she didn’t know many people when she first moved to Le Sueur, Milam came to find many more through her work in the church, nursing home and Treasures in Town.

Treasures in Town is one of Milam’s favorite places to volunteer because the thrift store sells just about everything including clothing, bedding, dishes, lamps, utensils, small and large furniture and more. She can be found at the thrift store every Thursday sorting through donated items. While sorting, Milam cleans and sanitizes the donations, throws out damaged goods and stores away seasonal products for the future.

“It’s always fun,” said Joyce Gisvold, a volunteer at Treasures in Town and a friend of Milam. Everybody gravitates towards something because everybody can do everything.”

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Agnes Miliam (center, front row) celebrated her 99th birthday with her fellow volunteers at Treasures in Town. Edrie Barton (front left), Joyce Gisvold (front right), Joanie Wacker (back left), Joanie Culbert (back center) and Marci Allen (back right), who prepared a celebration with cake and zucchini bread for their friend. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

The work is ever-changing. The volunteers see all kinds of things donated and all kinds of people donating. Sometimes Treasures in Town will receive a donation and nobody knows what the item is supposed to be or what it’s used for.

“No day is ever the same,” said Gisvold. “The people that donate are different. What might be an antique to someone might be trash to another.”

Many of the volunteers have known each other for years and Milam has remained a beloved presence at Treasures in Town.

“If I should ever get to 99, I hope I can be as great and wonderful as you are,” Gisvold told Milam.

When she’s not working at the thrift store or volunteering elsewhere, Milam likes to grab some coffee with friends, play BINGO with nursing home residents, go shopping in Mankato and exercise in the community center to ensure that her future is just as long as her life before.

And Milam’s secret to longevity? Moderation.

“Everything in moderation is the biggest thing,” said Milam. “I have one resident in nursing home who is 103 and said the same thing, everything in moderation and always try to stay healthy.”

The Tri-City United boys soccer team battled with Mayer Lutheran last year. (County News file photo)

The schoolhouse on the Le Center Fairgrounds was closed to the public a few years ago, but now a committee of community members is leading a restoration effort to open the building before the next county fair. The building turned 150 this year and is one of just a few schoolhouses left standing in the county. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

LS-H, TCU approve in-person learning for elementary, hybrid learning for secondary

Max Rotter, TCU Lonsdale second-grader, sits in his distance learning area that he created with Magna-tiles, a breakfast in bed tray, desk lamp, laptop, his blankets and favorite stuffed animal. TCU’s back to school model will have elementary students return to in-person learning, while grades 7-12 take on hybrid learning. (Photo courtesy of Marisa Rotter)

Kids will be going back to school this fall, but how many days they’re at school will depend on whether they attend the elementary school or middle and high school. On Aug. 17, the Le Sueur-Henderson and Tri-City United school boards approved in-person/hybrid learning plans for their students.

Le Sueur Henderson

Le Sueur-Henderson’s learning plan will include in-person learning for students pre-K-5 and a hybrid model for grades 6-12. The plan was approved by the School Board in a 6-1 vote. Vice Chair Erina Prom approved of the plan, but dissented because she preferred that the model not include in-person learning at the elementary.

Through the in-person learning model, students at Park and Hilltop Elementary School will attend classes in person five days a week, much like a regular school year. The choice to return to an in-person model for the school year was based on recommendations from Le Sueur County health officials, said Superintendent Marlene Johnson, and the ability to recruit on-site substitute teachers.

“The nurses and the county health nurse and the team felt that we were good to go with the data,” said Johnson. “Second of all, it’s hard to get substitutes under the hybrid model. So if we went into the hybrid model and then all of a sudden somebody or a few go sick … we would have to go into distance learning sooner than we would want to, so we may not have all the subs available.”

Students at Le Sueur-Henderson Middle/High School will attend school on alternating schedules with three days of distance learning and two days of in-person learning. Classes will be split in half between Day 1 students and Day 2 students to keep classes at 50% capacity. Day 1 students will attend classes in-person on Mondays and Wednesdays, while Day 2 students will attend school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, all students will distance learn to keep capacity low, maintain a clean facility, and to be in sync with the elementary schools if they have to switch to hybrid learning as well.

“We strive to be in a relationship with the elementary school, so if they have distance learning on Friday, we have distance learning on Friday,” said Johnson. “It doesn’t support all families the same way, but if some needed their high school or middle school person home with an elementary [student] … if you wanted that scenario at home, you could.”

In the event of a hybrid model at Park and Hilltop, students would attend school Monday-Thursday and distance learn on Fridays. Because the facilities at Park and Hilltop are large, relative to the student population, classrooms could be reduced to 50% capacity, while all students attend in person.

For both models, the school district is implementing more online learning tools into regular instruction. Google Classroom will be a regular hub of communication between teachers and families, and live instruction will be streamed and recorded for student access. Students that are distance learning under the hybrid model will be able to follow along with the same lecture as their classmates in real-time due to streaming. On Fridays during full distance learning, students will mark their attendance by submitting work on time.

Families that do not want to attend school have the option of distance learning. So far, approximately 30 students in the elementary schools and 60 in the middle/high school have opted to distance learn.

District administrators will meet every week during the school year to evaluate COVID-19 case numbers and how best to conduct learning. The model could change over the course of the school year, but for the month of September, Johnson said the model would remain consistent throughout, unless case numbers demanded the school change.

“We don’t really want to say, start with hybrid, and the next week move to on-site, and the next week move to distance learning,” said Johnson. “If the data says that we can maintain that, we will maintain that.”

The learning model was supported by a large share of the School Board, but Vice Chair Erina Prom was reluctant to have students return to school full-time in the fall without class sizes reduced even further.

“I do not feel comfortable putting them in there every single day and not being able to make those class sizes smaller,” said Prom. “Watching the activities over the summer, New Prague started putting their activities together and they had to shut it down, because they had too many outbreaks. We literally just do not know what’s going to happen when we start putting all these kids together.”

“We can all agree that the best place for them is with their teachers,” Prom continued. “But we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and we could potentially move into a state similar to Arizona, where they had cases less than Minnesota and now they’re having overloads in their hospitals.”

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Park Elementary Teacher Colleen Winters’ second grade class dressed up over Zoom as tacky tourists, showing their teacher what they would need for a vacation. The Le Sueur-Henderson School District is incorporating more focus on technology to prepare for a school year will require some students to learn from home. (Photo courtesy of Le Sueur-Henderson)

School Board Chair Brigid Tuck said she had reservations about students returning to school as well, but that her fears were assuaged by health experts.

“What moved my needle to feeling comfortable with this is [School Nurse] Molly [Thelemann] and the public health nurse with the county were very clear that they were comfortable with this. They showed no hesitation whatsoever and those are the folks that we have trusted to be experts for our district.”

Tuck added, “Even though we think of the in-person learning having no parameters, they actually will be in their individual classrooms with their homeroom teacher. They won’t be moving spaces; they’ll be spaced out a lunch; they will go out on separate recesses.”

Tri-City United

At Tri-City United, a 4-3 majority on the School Board approved a learning plan which includes in-person learning for students pre-K-6 and hybrid learning for grades 7-12.

In the in-person model, elementary students will report to school every day with a number of added safety precautions. Distancing 6 feet apart will not be mandatory, but students will be reminded to be aware of social distancing. Mask will still be mandatory under state executive order, and other safety measures, such as staggered dismissals, multiple entrances and exits and more frequent cleanings, will be implemented.

Students will stay in the same classroom for most subjects, such specialized courses like art, music and technology. Rather than students traveling to different classes, teachers will come to their students. Physical education is an exception, and the school plans to have P.E. courses outside as much as possible or in the gymnasium.

“It’s normal school with a lot of safety measures being taken,” said Superintendent Lonnie Seifert. “Otherwise, it’s pretty normal.”

Grades 7-8 will be separated into two groups on a five-period block schedule under a hybrid model. One group would attend school in person every Monday and Wednesday, while the other group would attend every Tuesday and Thursday. When not in school, students will be distance learning from home. On Fridays, the groups would alternate schedules so that each group is in the building every other Friday. Groups will be broken up in such a way that students in blended families will be attending school on the same days.

High school students in grades 9-12 will also be split up into two groups under a hybrid model. Like the middle school, groups will be in school on either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday while alternating Fridays. The 7 period class schedule will remain the same and students that require special services may receive individualized schedules.

The hybrid model will come with some minor changes to class spaces. Study halls will be combined in the commons to allow one teacher to watch multiple study halls. ESL will be moved to the choir room and choir and band classes will be relocated to allow for 12 feet of social distancing. Art classes will remain in the same room, but the room will be restructured to allow for proper social distancing.

Distance learning is an option for those who request it, but because TCU teachers are faced with a full schedule, full distance learning would be managed by an online facilitator, chosen from TCU staff, and instruction would come from a private company hired by the school. For the whole year, a class of 23 students in 12 classes each would cost the school $20,000. Classes would be specialized to reflect TCU curriculum, and students enrolled in the program would still be considered TCU students. The district has requested that families that opt for distance learning commit to nine weeks of it.

Reactions to the learning plan by the TCU School Board were mixed. Krista Goettl expressed her preference for an all hybrid model, rather than moving elementary students into in-person learning because of the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m still leaning toward the hybrid for all with the understanding that there are so many unknowns out there,” said Goettl. “I appreciate all the work that went into all the planning; there is just something in my gut that says, ‘Why would we go to that right away if we know that it’s going to make us go back to distance learning?’”

Ashley Rosival expressed similar concerns. Rosival noted that, in a survey, 90% of parents were comfortable with hybrid learning over distance learning, and Rosival believed that a hybrid model could do significantly more to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“If I were a staff member, and I had to manage masks, I had to teach hand hygiene, I had to distance, I had to manage that with 30 plus students, not to say it couldn’t be done, I just think the risks are much higher when you have a higher number,” said Rosival. “If it were halved, I think that mitigates some of the risk. You would have more time to focus on those kids.”

Other members of the board expressed confidence in the in-person elementary model. School Board Chair Marsha Franek believed that it was important for students to have the consistency provided by an in-person model.

“I feel that we need to get these kids in school, we need to have some stability and knowing that things can change in a week or two’s time, we can fall back on our hybrid plan,” said Franek. “I think our numbers allow us to do what we need to do, and our admin team is confident in our staff to do what we need to do and do it well.”

Kevin Huber also supported the in-person learning for elementary students, noting that families did not have to attend school in person if they felt uncomfortable.

“In my opinion, we can’t let the unknowns direct our path,” said Huber. “You have to keep in mind that whatever decision we make tonight is what we’re offering, but parents still have the option to choose distance learning.”

The learning plan was passed on a narrow 4-3 vote with Michelle Borchardt, Kevin Huber, Josh Buelke and Marsha Franek supporting the plan and Krista Goettl, Ashley Rosival and Dale Buss voting against.