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Julie Scott hits a return in giving tennis lessons to Clara Leonard and others in the beginners class this summer through Tri-City United Community Education at Le Center Middle School. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

Homeschoolers group sees increased membership as fall nears

Sarah Stein of Elko New Market began home schooling her daughters six years ago, at a time when distance learning and hybrid schooling weren’t even a thought.

“I missed them when they went to public school,” Stein said. “I always wanted to be a teacher, so it all came together one day.”

As more and more families consider going that route during the coronavirus pandemic, a home school group Stein started in Lonsdale has become a valuable support system for both veterans and newcomers.

Stein began home schooling while living in Lonsdale, where a home school group didn’t yet exist. Looking for a support system so she could connect with other home-schooling moms and her children could form friendships, Stein started Lonsdale Homeschoolers.

About six to eight families usually belong to the Lonsdale Homeschoolers group, but Stein said the number changes every year as families move to or away from the area. This month, the Lonsdale Homeschoolers Facebook group saw an increase of over 30 members in the span of one week.

Stein knows a number of families have opted to home school their children this fall rather than having them participate in distance learning, a hybrid model or classes in person. Apart from that, a number of other home-schooling cooperatives throughout the state have stopped running during the pandemic, so families have joined the Lonsdale group instead.

One new member is Danielle Capistrant, a Lonsdale mother of four. Although she home schooled her oldest son from kindergarten through third-grade, she took a break after having three more children. She had considered home-schooling all four children for a while, and the circumstances of the pandemic this year gave her a push to do just that. This fall, she plans to home school her fifth-grader, second-grader, first-grader and preschooler.

Earlier this month, Capistrant created a post for home-schooling families on the Lonsdale Happenings Facebook page. She asked if any home-schooling parents wanted to form a group for planning play dates and field trips and providing support for parents new to home-schooling. That was when Stein shared the link to her private Lonsdale Homeschoolers Facebook group with Capistrant, and since then, more families have requested access.

“I feel like it is going to be a great place for the community to support each other and come together, all while our kids are able to play freely and get the interaction they thrive on,” Capistrant said.

The group usually meets on a weekly basis at Triumphant Life Church in Lonsdale for enrichment days, field trips, play groups and volunteer opportunities, but that came to a halt in March, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The group took a break for that month, Stein said, but during the summer months they’ve gathered at outdoor locations.

“This year has been a lot more difficult to plan out activities and such, but in the past we have gone to museums, a lot of state parks or different nature centers — stuff like that,” Stein said. “For volunteering, we go to nursing homes. We’ve done crafts with [the residents] or we’ll sing around Christmastime.”

Stein home schools her 13-year-old, 9-year-old and 5-year-old. Her 8- and 9-year-old stepsons go to school. After schools closed in the spring, her stepsons began participating in distance learning, and she started partnering with teachers as an added support. With a home-schooling schedule already in place, her family was accustomed to having books and resources at home.

A major advantage to home-schooling for Stein is increased time with her children and having freedom in what she teaches them. She focuses on each child’s different strengths and interests, so they can choose to learn about what they like.

“It gives you the ability to strengthen each child on an individual basis, with a more one-on-one-focused learning style,” Stein said. “I feel like we can get a lot more done home-schooling. It doesn’t take the whole eight-hour school day to get it all done at home.”

In recent weeks, Stein has offered a number of pointers and advice to help parents decide if home-schooling is right for them.

“I usually tell parents if they are considering it, then I think they might as well try it, because you’re not going to regret trying it,” Stein said. “ … I think also, if you home-school, don’t try to bring the public school mindset home. This is a whole different lifestyle. And definitely get connected with other home-schooling friends so kids can have friendships.”

Stein has also advised newcomers to “expect and accept hard days” because there will be struggles along with “joys and blessings in the journey.”

Unable to social distance in existing space, county creates a new courtroom

Space that just a few months ago gave the county room to grow is about to serve as the halls of justice.

The 1,900-square foot area, part of a recently completed county Government Services Building expansion, was set aside for future use. But once COVID hit and state courthouses began to reopen, it was immediately clear that felony trials and social distancing weren’t going to mix in Rice County. That’s because the 1934 courthouse and its undersize courtrooms with large, view-obstructing pillars couldn’t accommodate the number of people required for a standard felony trial when spacing everyone 6 feet apart as required by Minnesota Judicial Branch regulations.

Felony trials require a minimum of 12 jurors and two alternates, prosecutors, defense attorneys, a judge, court reporters, the defendant, and often witnesses.

No configuration of the necessary participants worked in any of the four existing courtrooms, Judge Christine Long told the Rice County Board of Commissioners Tuesday morning.

“We can’t social distance effectively,” she said, adding that courthouse personnel tried three different layouts in the largest of the four courtrooms, but were unable to find a workable solution.

Long said the district court in Rice County needs to schedule about 150 felony trials built up over five months. That includes two murder cases, one in which a Faribault woman is accused of stabbing her boyfriend. In another, a local man is alleged to have given heroin to another person who later died from an overdose.

Commissioners approved $34,600 for work to finish the space with drywall and carpeting in early June. With that done, the board was asked Tuesday to OK construction of a judge’s bench that includes space for clerks and witnesses, and a jury box. Southern Minnesota Woodcraft will do the work, totaling $72,000.

Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn explained that additional work still needs to be done to the space, which features several large windows and looks out onto Third Street NW. The windows, which create a safety hazard, will be covered with a permanent screening that ensures the glass can’t shatter if struck, so the room’s occupants can see out, but that anyone outside the building can’t see what’s happening inside.

On Thursday, County Administrator Sara Folsted said estimates for the window coverings, remaining seating and technology — including audio and video equipment — haven’t been received.

While all costs for the project will be paid for with federal government funds intended to cover COVID-related expenses and losses, Folsted says that most of the purchases can be repurposed after the space is no longer needed as a courtroom.

The judge’s bench and jury box are being made so they can easily be moved. Technology and other furnishing will also be reused elsewhere.

Only those involved in an ongoing trial will be allowed in the new courtroom. Spectators will be able to view the proceedings in another courtroom inside the courthouse.

It’s expected the work will be completed and trials can begin by the middle of September.

Perry Deming of Faribault’s Healy Construction worked on the old Lockerby tin man in preparation for its move to the Rice County Historical Society grounds in October 2019. Cruising Rice County History serves as a fundraiser for maintaining local collections and continuing the Tin Family project.

Commissioner candidates Docken, Purfeerst post strong primary showings

Minnesota held its first major election of the COVID-19 era on Tuesday, and while ballots are still trickling in, the state’s vaunted elections system seems to have held up well.

In Rice County, three primaries were held in order to bring the total number of candidates in each race down to two for the November ballot. Three candidates had filed for District 5 of the County Board of Commissioners and Northfield mayor, and four for District 1 of the County Board, including incumbents in each race. All three incumbents, Commissioners Jeff Docken and Jake Gillen, and Northfield Mayor Rhonda Pownell, secured enough votes Tuesday to move on to November.

District 5, which includes Erin, Forest, Morristown, Shieldsville, Warsaw, Webster and Wheatland townships along with the cities of Lonsdale and Morristown were heavily tilted in favor of the incumbent, Docken, a Forest Township farmer.

Preliminary results show Docken, who’s served on the board since 2008, carrying 63% of the vote. In second place is Kim Halvorson, a Warsaw Township turkey farmer who has served on the County Planning and District One Hospital boards, with 22% of the vote.

Former Morristown Mayor Kurt Wolf appears to have been eliminated after receiving just 15%, setting up a rematch of the 2016 race between Halvorson and Docken. Then, Docken cruised to victory with over 70% of the vote.

Docken said he was highly pleased with the strong support he received across the district. He was particularly pleased the strong support he received in the southern part of the district around Morristown, where both of his challengers hail from.

“It’s good to have a strong following that supports me,” he said. “I think it shows that I’m doing a good job representing the district.”

While she may have finished a distant second, Halvorson said she was pleased to advance to the second round and expressed hope that with additional time to campaign, as much as COVID allows, and a larger electorate, she might fare better.

“I’m very excited to move forward,” she said. “I hope to be able to see an ending in November that’s very successful.”

In the 1st District, which includes Bridgewater, Cannon City, Northfield, Richland, Walcott and Wheeling townships as well as the cities of Dennison, Dundas and Nerstrand and two Northfield precincts, the incumbent had a much rougher time.

The seat has been held since 2004 by Gillen, a retired farmer from Walcott Township and the board’s longest serving current member. Gillen had initially expressed intentions of stepping down at this election, but decided to seek another term after the death of his wife.

In his race for a fifth term, Gillen drew challenges from financial advisor Bill McDonald of Cannon City, former union business manager Joe Adamek and longtime farmer Jim Purfeerst, a farmer and member of the Rice Soil and Water Conservation District.

Preliminary results show Purfeerst prevailing with just under half the vote in the crowded field and winning every precinct except for Nerstrand, which went to McDonald. Gillen advanced to the general election with 24% while McDonald and Adamek were eliminated after receiving 16% and 12%, respectively.

Although he’s never enjoyed the landslide margins regularly racked up by other members of the board, this is the first time that Gillen has fallen behind a challenger in any of his county board races. He expressed concern at the result.

“My son told me, ‘well, if you can garner the votes of the two losers, you’ll have enough to win,’” Gillen said. “But it’s the first time I’ve been in this situation in all the times I ran … I’ll have to figure out where to go from here.”

For his part, Purfeerst was ecstatic. The lifelong Richland Township resident was quick to praise his three rivals and pledged to bring a new perspective to the board if elected in November.

“There were four great qualified candidates who ran,” he said. “I’d like to thank everyone who voted for any of us, and I feel honored and privileged to have received the support that I did.”

Challenging elections

Organizing a safe and orderly election amid the circumstances was certainly no easy task. In Rice County, the Property Tax and Elections Department held no fewer than eight trainings to bring election judges up to speed on election safety protocols.

On election day, the Property Tax and Elections Department spared no expense to keep voters and poll workers safe. Election judges received ample PPE, including rubber gloves, face masks and face shields as well as hand sanitizer.

Judges who are primarily seated were protected by a plexiglass shield, while those assisting with curbside voting were given full gowns. Each polling place also had a greeter at the entrance to ensure proper social distancing practices were followed.

The state’s biggest ask of voters was that they not show up on election day at all, but instead vote by mail. Minnesota has had no-excuse absentee voting since 2013, and even before COVID one in four voters took advantage of the option to cast their vote that manner.

Voters answered the call. Although final figures won’t be available for several more days, in total, more than 600,000 absentee ballots were requested across the state, helping Minnesota to maintain its traditionally strong turnout numbers.

Thanks to a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by, among others, local DFL State Rep. Jeff Brand of St. Peter, counties were able to begin counting early votes up to a week before the election and will be able to accept mail-in votes received on Wednesday or Thursday, so long as they are postmarked on or before Tuesday.

In comparison for the November ballot, which will include hotly contested races for President and Vice President, U.S. Senator and the state’s entire Congressional delegation and state legislature, the state primary ballot was very quiet, with just one statewide race that wasn’t seen as competitive — for U.S. Senate.

Both incumbent U.S. Senator Tina Smith and former Rep. Jason Lewis blew away token opposition, with Smith taking 87% of the vote and Lewis 78%. In Rice County their vote shares were even higher, with Smith at 92% and Lewis at 82%.

Just one primary race attracted nationwide attention and millions of dollars in spending. In the Fifth Congressional District, which includes Minneapolis and its inner-ring suburbs, Rep. Ilhan Omar faced a robust primary challenge from mediator and political newcomer Antone Melton-Meaux. Although Melton-Meaux significantly outraised Omar in the most recent filing period and benefited heavily from outside spending, the controversial incumbent overcame heavy criticism to win easily.

DFL voters were in a left-wing mood overall, with four established legislators, Sens. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis and Erik Simonson of Duluth and Reps. Raymond Dehn of Minneapolis and John Lesch of St. Paul, apparently losing their seats to challengers from the left.