The start of the new school year has come with its own set of unique challenges for educators. Between online learning, reduced class sizes and a mask mandate, schooling looks a lot different than in previous years. But after a semester of distance learning last spring, teachers are happy to be seeing their students in class again.
“It went very well; the day went very fast,” TCU Lonsdale second-grade teacher Abby Brockway said after the first day of school. “It was nice to have the excitement of the students and the staff in the building, and even though you couldn’t see their smiles, you could just hear the excitement in their voices.”
Local school districts including TCU, Le Sueur-Henderson, St. Peter and Cleveland have all debuted hybrid models this year to accommodate COVID-19 which come with a whole host of changes. One of the most significant is reduced class sizes. Guidelines for the hybrid model mandate that classrooms be at 50% capacity, so local districts have split students into two different groups. Each group alternates days and attends school in-person twice a week. One day a week is reserved for all distance learning.
TCU Lonsdale fourth-grade teacher Megan Warner leads a class of 11 students in-person on “Group A” days and a class of eight on “Group B” days, but the whole class comes together through Google Meets projected on a TV screen. Students at home will log on from school-distributed Chromebooks in the afternoon during read aloud time. Unlike last year, during distance learning, Warner can teach lessons in person and allow students time to apply their skills at home.
“I think with the smaller class sizes we were able to really instruct on the first day,” Warner said. “With the classes split in half to a smaller group, everyone had a chance to talk.”
Brockway agreed that spending one on one time with students is an advantage to the smaller class sizes. On the first day of school especially, this allowed for more time to establish routines, answer questions, and get to know one another.
Creating that level of consistency was a big focus of Le Sueur-Henderson Middle School/High School Social Studies Teacher Rick Bruns. Since students have been out of the classroom for much longer than usual, Bruns said that it has been harder for his pupils to adjust back to learning in school again. It has also been challenging to get students to consistently be on Zoom when they aren’t in the classroom.
“I asked them yesterday how they were feeling and the overwhelming response was they are getting a lot of work,” said Bruns. “Admittedly, coming off of spring there really wasn’t quite a demand on students and they feel a little bit overwhelmed right now. But it’s amazing to have these kids back, to be in the building with them; they get to be with their friends and things like that. I think part of it is getting back into that routine again.”
Hybrid learning has also introduced more reliance on technology in the classroom than Bruns and students are used to. During class, half the students will be at their desks while the other half will be following along on Zoom. A few students over Zoom will occasionally be dropped from the call due to a poor internet connection, so Bruns has to spend some time catching students up to speed and finding out what they may have missed.
Though keeping students up to speed through technology has been a trial by fire, Bruns and many other teachers are coming out of the experience with a greater understanding of digital tools for education.
Robert Deering, a science teacher at St. Peter High School is accommodating a divided classroom with divided lessons. When students are learning from home, Deering gives students self-guided work they can perform independently, such as reading an article or watching a video. When they’re in class, he uses the space for hands-on science experiments. Due to the pandemic, science equipment is divided out so that everyone can use their own set and the equipment is sanitized afterward.
The St. Peter science teacher came into the new year with some experience under his belt, having not only learned from distance learning in the spring, but also participating in a team of teachers that studied the hybrid learning model. Deering’s main takeaway was that hybrid learning should accommodate a self-led lesson plan.
“Part of the hybrid instruction focuses on wanting to educate students to be independent,” said Deering. “They’re allowed to have a choice when they complete assignments and how they show content mastery and how they show understanding. We looked at a lot of different models like creating a playlist that the student can choose from that the teacher has decided is appropriate for them to do.”
One of the major challenges Deering is trying to address in his class is building relationships with students. Deering said he wants to create a greater sense of normalcy in the classroom, but it’s been harder with hybrid learning and the potential for the learning model to shift to distance learning if COVID numbers were to go up.
“There’s always that potential to move to distance learning as the pandemic continues, so I try to have one day with my kids to build that relationship.”
At the elementary level, being in the classroom can come with its own set of challenges. In second grade, Brockway often reminds her students to respect one another’s “bubbles” regardless of the pandemic. This year, that conversation isn’t just about personal space but keeping others healthy. With that comes reminders to keep masks on and wash hands.
Students’ understanding of the pandemic varies according to their age level. As a second-grade teacher, Brockway said she focuses on the virus in general and talks to her students about staying healthy and taking care of their bodies. She plans to read students a book called “When Virona the Corona Came to Town” to help them understand what happened in March, why schools needed to close, and why things are so different now. Brockway believes parents have the option to talk more in depth about the virus outside of school with their children.
In Warner’s fourth-grade classroom, she chose to talk about healthy choices and the importance of hand washing. Since school began the day before the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, she talked about how that moment in history stands out to those who lived through it just like students will remember living through the coronavirus pandemic, even when they grow up.
“No one seemed fearful at all, just doing their part,” Warner said.
Though the year has many challenges ahead, teachers were confident that their schools were well-prepared.
After children were dismissed Thursday for the first time, Warner said, “I’m excited; I’m ready for tomorrow.”
Lonsdale Area News-Review reporter Misty Schwab contributed to this story.
With construction underway on the old Hwy. 112 and now County Road 22 turnback project, along with all the Le Sueur city roads included in the project, the city of Le Sueur is now preparing to levy special assessments.
Community members attended an online public hearing on Sept. 14 before the Le Sueur CIty Council to ask questions and give feedback about the special assessments scheduled to be levied on Sept. 28. Attendees spoke over the webinar and submitted emailed statements to the council to participate.
The proposed special assessments total approximately $1.5 million between 143 properties in the city. The assessments make up a quarter of the total $5.6 million the city owes to the project out of a total $17.5 million being spent between the city and Le Sueur County.
Assessments would be divided into four districts, which will subsidize different project costs. About $36,000 in mill and overlay costs would be levied on homes around Ferry Street east of Elmwood Ave. Reclamation costs amounting to $483,000 will be paid by properties along Commerce Street. Properties along Elmwood Avenue, Ferry Street west of Elmwood and Bridge Street would cover $873,000 for urban residential reconstruction. $95,000 in rural reconstruction costs would be paid by properties at the south end of Elmwood.
Those who are assessed will have multiple payment options. Property owners may cover the full costs of their assessment in the very first year and pay no interest. They may also partially prepay without interest and have the remaining amount rolled over into their county taxes. If a property owner takes no action to prepay, they would have their balance put on taxes which would be paid over 15 years with a 3% interest rate.
The rest of the city’s costs are shared by residents which have already been factored in utility bills. Assessed properties would pay the the taxed amount on top of what is included in utility bills.
Many attendees spoke in favor of the turnback project, which transferred ownership of Hwy. 112 from the state to the county and allowed the county to pursue repair and reconstruction on 3.5 miles of roadway and 30 intersections in town, including County Road 22 (112 turnback) from County Road 115 to Ferry Street; Ferry from Elmwood to S. Fourth Street; S. Fourth Street from Ferry to Bridge Street; Bridge from S. Fourth Street to N. Main Street; and Commerce Street from Market Street to the Hwy. 169 ramp. Also covered by the project is Ferry Street between Elmwood Avenue and Kingsway Drive; Ferry between S. Fourth Street and S. Second Street; and S. Second Street from Ferry to Bridge Street.
Many of the roads serviced have or will receive full reconstruction that includes improvements to street lighting, pedestrian trails, sanitary and storm sewers and water mains.
But there were also complaints about the way properties werte being assessed. One property owner, Larry Brunder, whose home is on the west side of Elmwood Avenue, contended that the assessments were not conducted fairly. Brunder said that the assessment did not distinguish between property values raised by utility improvements and street improvements. That was important to Brunder, because while his home could benefit from repairs to Elmwood, his sewer line does not connect to Elmwood’s.
“The special benefit assessment doesn’t break down between if the street has increased the value of the property or the utilities have increased the value of the property,” said Brunder.
The homeowner added that there should be a distinction, since the city is responsible for the costs of utility improvements while the county covered the cost of improving the roadway.
Sheila Lijander raised concerns that the online meeting would be difficult to attend. As a real estate agent, Lijander said she spoke to many people that had questions about the assessment letters they got in the mail and worried they would have difficulty attending the meeting.
““I understand, because of COVID, that we’re doing it this way, but a lot of people who live along 112 on Ferry Street, I don’t even know if a lot of them have computers,” said Lijander. “The fact that they can’t actually come in and talk … the fact that you’re maybe not getting a lot of people responding is it’s just too hard for them to go online and be able to tell how they’re feeling.”
City Administrator Jasper Kruggel responded that while the assessment hearing itself may be difficult for some residents to attend, the city had been fielding calls from residents about the assessments for a year and had notified residents about the assessments through mail, newspaper postings and an open house meeting on Sept. 10.
“I have fielded a lot of questions,” said Kruggel. “I know City Council members have received questions from property owners as well. I know the word is out, the letters have been received. The meeting tonight might be difficult, but I feel there has been ample time to talk with the owners and opportunity to discuss and talk to staff and City Council about the assessments.”
After receiving comments from the public, the council will consider the adoption of assessments at the Sept. 28 council meeting.
Those struggling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic may have new opportunities for financial and health assistance.
On Sept. 15, Le Sueur County invested more than $500,000 in CARES Act funds to human services providers, including disability services, financial and housing assistance, telehealth and more.
One of the many providers benefitting from these funds is MRCI (Managed Resource Connections Inc.), which provides job coaching, training, employment services as well as day services for adults with disabilities. With a one-time payment of $69,000 from the county, MRCI will be expanding its coverage area from locations like Mankato and New Ulm into Le Sueur County.
The expansion could have a great impact on people with disabilities in the area. The county saw Le Sueur County Developmental Services, which provided employment and life skills services to more than 50 adults with disabilities, permanently close last summer amid financial losses from shutting down operations during COVID-19.
“This will hopefully help pick up some of those from LCDS with the closing and service those folks as well,” said Le Sueur County Commissioner Steve Rohlfing.
To make services accessible during the pandemic, MRCI has been providing a number of virtual programs including check-ins, small group peer activities, career advice and skills training and employment services.
“It is exciting to work with them and they have a really good plan,” said Sue Rynda, Le Sueur County director of human services. “They want to hire someone in Le Sueur County and work on community jobs and support people virtually. They have lots of clubs and activities. I think providers and guardians and those that we serve are very excited about this opportunity.”
That’s not all the county is spending their CARES dollar on. To expand access to a variety of human services, Le Sueur County has contracted Minnesota Valley Action Council for $266,000 in emergency assistance. The nonprofit aims to empower low income-earners through a variety of programs that include employment and training, housing assistance, energy assistance and financial advice. Different programs have different eligibility requirements, often based on income level.
“A lot of the things we’re hoping to help families with, anything from housing to car repairs to getting them caught up with utility bills, just a variety of things,” said Tiffany Vanden Einde, a vocational advisor at MVAC.
CARES dollars will be spent not just on programming, but additional staffing at MVAC and new technology and hotspots to expand telehealth capabilities. MVAC’s satellite office in Le Center is currently closed to the public, but people will soon be allowed to pick up CARES Act applications from outside the building and submit their requests in a drop box outside.
“We are going to stay closely on top of this,” said Rynda. “We’re going to try and service as many people that are eligible as possible.”
With symptoms of mental illness and stressors becoming more common during the pandemic, the county has also put nearly $60,000 toward Counseling Services of Southern Minnesota to create support groups for teachers, students and parents of children at local school districts including Tri-City United, Waterville-Elysian-Morristown and Cleveland Public Schools.
“We recognize the strain on teachers, students, and families as they negotiate this unprecedented pandemic,” wrote Tom McNeely, Executive Director of Counseling Services of Southern Minnesota in a letter to the county. “In some cases, this strain is leading to a deterioration of general functioning, is interrupting child social, emotional and academic development. It is our proposal to create support groups for teachers, students and caregivers to enhance functioning and resilience during this challenging time.”
Funds will also be dedicated to ten devices, hot spots and a server upgrade to operate telemedicine services. In addition, the agency will use CARES dollars to create ten videos educating teachers on mental health and training them how to talk with students and families about COVID-19.
The county is also partnering LSS Financial Counseling to provide financial wellness services and community educational events to residents. Participants will be offered financial counseling appointments to help them navigate emergency budgeting, student loans, foreclosure, credit repair and more and will receive a budget and written action plan of steps to improve their financial situation. In addition, the firm will hold four different hour long financial educational events: two in the day and two in the evening.