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In-person learning planned at local private schools this fall

While back-to-school plans remain ambiguous for public schools, private schools in the Le Sueur and St. Peter area are gearing up to return to in-person learning in the fall.

Under state guidance released July 30, Minnesota public schools will work with the state Health and Education departments to determine whether to use in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model, and will have the ability to become more or less restrictive depending on the virus.

But private schools have the ability to develop their back-to-school plans independently. Now, administrators at St. Anne’s School, St. Peter Lutheran School and John Ireland School are taking advantage of this independence and their small sizes to open up their buildings next month.

St Anne’s

St. Anne’s School, which serves children Pre-K-5 in the Le Sueur area released its back-to-school plan on July 30. The plan is part of a four-phase approach to eventually reopen the school without restrictions. The school expects to start in phase three — offering in-person learning with some restrictions.

Those restrictions include a number of additional public health and safety precautions. St. Anne’s will commit to temperature screenings at the entrance of the school, educating students on handwashing and respiratory etiquette (such as covering your cough), sanitizing high traffic areas throughout the school day and keeping a nurse on duty everyday throughout the month of September.

St. Anne’s Catholic Church students took to the playground for some fun time in 2016. (County News file photo)

Classrooms will also look different this year. Desks will be placed 3 feet apart at the K-5 level and each classroom will be equipped with hand sanitizer. In addition, just one class will be in a hallway at a time.

Schedules for both lunch and recess will be staggered. Tuesday mass will be reserved for grades 2-5 while special arrangements will be made for younger grades.

After school activities, large gatherings and public visitation to mass will all be prohibited. School visitors will also need to be screened before entering.

For students unable to attend due to vulnerabilities, illness, symptoms, or quarantine, St. Anne’s will offer a hybrid online learning option. A plan for hybrid online learning has not been developed because no families have expressed interest in it.

A transportation plan is also still in development. St. Anne’s relies on Le Sueur-Henderson to bus kids, so how St. Anne’s gets to school will depend on what the district is allowed to do.

To create these measures, the St. Anne’s archdiocese assembled a task force made up of the bishop and archdiocese office as well as principals and teachers mainly in Minneapolis and St. Paul area. Administration, teachers, parents, the school nurse and Father Chris Shofner at the St. Anne’s School in Le Sueur then worked to localize the plan for the needs of the area.

“We’re going to follow guidelines of the MDE and MDH,” said Principal Anner Lewis. “When it comes to our school we have 140 [students]. Our class sizes are capped at 20 so that our class sizes are small … So we have a little bit of flexibility there.”

Lewis said that opening the building for in-person learning was a goal of the school. St. Anne’s plans to begin its fall semester in the first week of September in order to offset the last school year ending early due to distance learning and to catch students up to speed.

“Education is essential and these kids need to be back in school,” said Lewis. “The benefits outweigh the risks at this point and that was the archdiocese opinion and I agree. Kids need to be in school and we’re going to try it to see if we can get it to work. If it doesn’t we can say that we tried and move to that next phase.”

St. Peter Lutheran

For the 2020-2021 school year, St. Peter Lutheran School released a detailed “Plan A” which would open the school for in-person learning. Principal Brad Gurgel told families that the school was guided by two shared goals: a desire to create an effective learning environment and a safe learning environment.

“Here at St. Peter Lutheran Schools, we strongly feel face-to-face learning is by far the most effective way for our children to succeed academically,” said Gurgel in a message to parents.

In this plan, each classroom group — including preschool, K-1, 2-3, 4-5 and 6-8 — will remain isolated from one another in new class arrangements. Class sizes will be smaller and desks will be spread further apart in this new setup. The isolated classrooms are intended to prevent and mitigate the level of exposure between classes.

“We do have the advantage of having a much smaller student body size than public schools,” said Gurgel. “Which means our children are going to be far less exposed to other children throughout each day which allows us to be present more often.”

Under plan A, the school year will begin with a number of added safety measures. Daily temperature screenings will take place at the entrance each day and students with fever will be sent home. Hand sanitizer stations will be installed in K-8 classrooms and classroom surfaces and shared items will be disinfected daily. There will be markers as well to remind students to social distance.

During lunch and recess, classes will receive hot lunch one at a time and eat in separate spaces. Classroom groups will also remain in separate areas of the playground. The microwave and fridge will not be available for student use. In lunch, recess and gym class, students will have “mask breaks” where they can play, exercise and eat without a face mask.

Inter-classroom activities such as choir and band will be put on hold until COVID-19 risks are minimized. Chapel services will also be held over livestream, rather than in-person.

Precautionary measures are also in place if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19. If a teacher or student in a single classroom tests positive, the entire class will move to remote learning for the week. If students across classrooms contract the virus, the entire school will close for the week for distance learning. Throughout the year, teachers will post assignments and lessons online for students that are absent, sick or quarantined.

Like other local private schools, St. Peter Lutheran School relies on St. Peter public schools for busing. If busing is unavailable, a before and after school program will be implemented to give parents time to drop off and pick up their children.

John Ireland

John Ireland Catholic School in St. Peter is still in the process of completing a back-to-school plan, but Principal Colleen Wenner confirmed that the district would release an in-person learning plan to the public by Friday, Aug. 14.

“We are doing in-person instruction because we have small classes and lots of space,” said Wenner.

For the next school year, John Ireland is capping classes at 15 students per room, which Wenner said would allow social distancing within the classroom. Class sizes currently range from 9-13, said Wenner, so there is room for a growing number of families enrolling in the school.

Dana Melius / By DANA MELIUS 

John Ireland Principal Colleen Wenner (middle) greets students, parents and fellow teachers Thursday morning during first-day-of-school activities in 2017. John Ireland and other private schools intend to return to school in-person this year with precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (St. Peter Herald file photo)

“We have been getting inquiries from a lot of families joining,” said Wenner. “But we will have a cap on 15, because that’s what we can safely have in a classroom.”

While the John Ireland School building will be opening, Wenner anticipated that the students may need additional learning at home. At the beginning of the year, students will be assessed academically to find out which skills the school will need to prioritize.

“Obviously, with social distancing in the spring and summer generally kids lose a little bit,” said Wenner. “So we’re going to kind of ease back into things and really prioritize what are the key things we want them to gain in-person and then having those other skills they could maybe practice at home.”

Wenner stated that the school would be following CDC and MDH guidelines and requirements including temperature screenings, checking for symptoms, wearing masks and frequent handwashing. Social distancing will be required and lunch service will be simplified to reduce contact — with pre-plating food as a potential option.

Distance learning will not be available as an alternative option for students attending John Ireland. Wenner said that the school did not have the staffing and resources necessary to provide distance learning as an option alongside in-person learning.

Transportation remains up in the air, as the school relies on St. Peter Schools for busing needs. If busing is unavailable, Wenner said that parents may need to be responsible for taking their children to school.

While the school plans on in-person learning, Wenner said that the school will continue to monitor the scope of COVID-19 and would change the model if it became unsafe to hold in-person learning.

“We’re monitoring things and will ultimately do what’s best for our families,” said Wenner. “If we need to change our model,w e will definitely do that as well as looking at what the district is doing and what’s happening with cases in the county … To be in-person to start the year and to do it as long as we can is really important to us because we know that’s what’s best for our student’s mental health as well as their academic and spiritual well-being.”

Le Sueur County declares state of emergency over flooding
Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES 

Hwy. 99 is one of many roads in Le Sueur County which were damaged by flood waters on June 29. The event and a second flood on July 26 led Le Sueur County to declare states of emergency in hopes of receiving federal and state dollars for repairs. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

After two large flooding events swamped Le Sueur County this summer, officials are seeking state and federal aid.

On Aug. 4, the Le Sueur Board of Commissioners declared two states of emergencies following flooding events on June 29 and July 25. More than 9 inches of rainfall hit Le Sueur County both months, leaving tens of thousands of dollars in uninsured damages to public infrastructure.

The June 29 flooding event saw the most damages. Heavy rains and winds led to a landslide on County Road 118 near Henderson Station. A number of county roads had culverts damaged on 132 near Waterville, the intersection of 110 and 114 south of Le Center, 135 near Kilkenny and the intersection of 3 by 458th street in Kilkenny. The County has calculated $25,000 in damages to ditches and Kilkenny Township reported $10,000 due to gravel roads being washed away.

Hwy. 99 was also damaged by the flooding. A section of the roadway east of Hwy. 13 closed on June 30 due to a failed culvert and remains closed for repairs. The recent damage made Hwy. 99 in that location unsafe for travel.

Le Sueur County Emergency Services Director Ann Traxler calculated that Le Sueur experienced $102,000 in uninsured damages to public infrastructure from the June flooding event alone. To qualify for a state aid, damages must reach $53,000. Public infrastructure must suffer at least $106,000 in uninsured damage to receive federal aid.

While Le Sueur County does not yet qualify for federal aid, that could change. The county has not completed a preliminary damage assessment including damages reported by cities and townships.

“I believe if we put out inquiries to our cities and townships, we will hit our $106,000 in uninsured damages,” said Traxler.

If the county received aid from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), 75% of infrastructure costs would be reimbursed by the federal government and 25% of costs would be reimbursed by the state. State aid without federal involvement would cover 75% of county costs.

The 9-inch rainfall that flushed county infrastructure again in July left $43,000 in confirmed damages. The Elysian, Waterville and Kasota area was hit hard with flooding and landslides.

“It was really scattered,” said Traxler. “But it stuck over us for a long time. Because water made its way earlier the month before it seems to be doing more damage and more things have popped up.”

Though the calculated damages are below the threshold for state aid, Traxler said she was advised to declare a state of emergency by state agencies. The county’s hope is that damages reported by cities and townships will qaulify the county for state assistance. If Le Sueur County qualifies for state and/or federal aid, Traxler said that assistance would come as soon as possible.

Commissioner Danny O’Keefe asked if local businesses that suffered a loss of income due to flooding would be eligible for this reimbursement. County Administrator Darrell Pettis said that federal loans could be available if the county qualifies for federal aid.

“If we get a federal disaster declaration, the SBA [Small Business Administration] comes in with loans and things like that, but we have to get the federal assistance first,” said Pettis.

These loans would be separate from federal grant money paid to the county. Private homes would not receive grant money for damages either.

“It’s for infrastructure damage and public damage, it is not for individuals,” said Traxler. “The threshold for that is huge. You have to be like Waseca was where the whole town was flooded in order to get that.”

Cleveland School turns to community for operating levy support to offset COVID costs

As COVID-related costs hit the Cleveland Public School District, school administrators are turning to the community for help.

At the July 20 Cleveland School Board Meeting, board members approved a question on the November ballot to raise the district’s operating levy to $750 per pupil. The district currently has two operating levies of $512 per pupil and $68 per pupil for a combined total of $581 per pupil. If approved, the $750 would revoke and replace both authorities with a single levy.

The proposal comes as Cleveland administrators worry that there may not be enough outside funding to support school operations under COVID-19 restrictions. Cleveland Public Schools received $24,000 in CARES ACT funding, but Superintendent Brian Phillips said that would not be enough to cover the additional staffing necessary to comply with coronavirus-related restrictions for the upcoming school year.

“The idea is the way things are progressing as far as requirements for operating the school system — costs are going up,” siad Phillips. “We need additional custodians, more bus drivers, food service, paraprofessionals. The dollar figure we’re getting from the state is about $23,000 and that’s not great for us. It would destroy our fund balance.”

Phillips said that with no additional funding from the state or federal government, the school’s general fund could be wiped out in 1-2 years from additional expenses. The current fund balance is large enough to give the school a cushion for a few years, said Phillips, but after that the school would be facing a deficit.

If approved, the district said that the levy increase would only be in place for as long as the school needed the additional funds. If the school district received more outside funding or the school’s finances stabilized, the levy would be reduced.

“We can go ahead with it and then, in a year or two years, if it’s not needed, we can go back and revoke it,” said School Board member Nancy Heldberg.

The $750 operating levy would go into effect in 2022 if supported by a majority of voters. Not factoring in changes to property value, a $200,000 property would see their taxes go up by $57 and would pay a total of $277 in school district taxes. The school would collect nearly an additional $100,000 in local support if the levy increase is passed and would receive $450,000 in total.

The School Board chose 2020 to pursue an increase in the operating levy because election costs are shared between the city and school district in election years. It also gives the school district and additional year to plan if the measure fails.

In approving the operating levy, the School Board also committed to reaching out to the public to inform the community about the financial troubles facing the school and where funds raised by the levy would go.

“It’s the only mechanism at this point we have to generate the extra dollars necessary for this unexpected increase,” said Phillips. “With the idea that if we do get funding for these things, we would give it back basically.“

Le Sueur-Henderson B-squad girls tennis coach Tor Sinell leads an air high five/fist pump at the end of practice in July at Le Sueur. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

The Le Sueur City Council approved a $452,000 TIF to Building Good Downtowns as part of a deal to redevelop the Valley Green Square Mall and reconnect Main Street. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

Radermacher’s Le Center

(Photo courtesy of Radermacher’s)