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As of March 16, 54 positive coronavirus cases were reported in Minnesota, up from 35 on Sunday. At least 13 counties have reported cases, including Waseca and Blue Earth counties. (Photo courtesy of Metro Creative Images)

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Rudolph's Bluebird Houses inspires creativity during pandemic

Keeping hands busy has always been a big part of Rudolph’s Bluebirds Houses’ mission, along with the goal of connecting those dealing with grief and loss.

Now that families and individuals are spending more time at home than ever with few opportunities to go out, the New Prague/Corcoran business is reaching a new demographic. What initially bonded those in mourning now connects those dealing with unmet expectations during the coronavirus pandemic, providing a creative outlet when person-to-person contact is out of the question.

“COVID-19 has disrupted daily life, and to try and find those activities that connect us to one another, like our bluebird houses, are important,” said Kristy Boike, who owns and runs the business with her dad, Ron Rudolph.

Boike said requests for single assembled bluebird houses and unassembled bluebird house kits have spiked since the COVID-19 outbreak hit the U.S. Pickups at her New Prague home continue, but with no contact with customers, who pay for their products using a coffee can outside her garage.

Since Rudolph and Boike live in two separate households, coronavirus has put a physical barrier between them — for now. Rudolph continues to drop off the bluebird houses he’s made, but for the sake of being safe and healthy, he doesn’t make physical contact with Boike and her family.

Boike remains undeterred.

“We’re still expressing our love, but in a different way.”

Ron Rudolph continues to drop off the bluebird houses he makes at the home of his daughter, Kristy Boike, but not without following social distancing recommendations. Here, Boike’s son Noah signs “I love you” to his grandpa. (Photo courtesy of Kristy Boike)

Assisted living facilities have purchased a number of bluebird houses for residents, said Boike, giving them something to decorate while family visits are prohibited. Other customers, parents, have ordered kits to give their children as home activities during school closures. Boike, a parent of four, knows distance learning allows for more free time than an ordinary school day.

Rudolph’s Bluebird Houses was born out of a need for a creative outlet.

Rudolph began building bluebird houses at his Corcoran home in February 2018, not long after losing his wife, Pat, to cancer. The construction process became his primary coping mechanism, keeping his mind and hands busy while dealing with his loss. The business of Rudolph’s Bluebird Houses was born after his daughter, Boike, spread the word about her dad’s project on Facebook Marketplace.

Since Rudolph’s Bluebird Houses took off in 2018, Boike and Rudolph have sold thousands of fully assembled bluebird houses as well as bluebird house kits, not only in southern Minnesota, but across the nation. International customers have also requested birdhouses. Rudolph’s Bluebird Houses has been featured in “People” magazine, on the “Today” show and even in a French media outlet.

But in the end, Boike said the business has always been about heart and the connections that have transpired. Apart from giving her dad an activity to occupy his alone time, the bluebird houses have established connections with him and others who feel isolated by grief.

Before the pandemic hit, Boike and Rudolph partnered with locations across Minnesota for community pickups. Most recently, about 150 customers met them in Chaska. They’ve also partnered with organizations to host bluebird house-building workshops for children and teens. But four or five pickups have been cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus, and workshops aren’t an option for now.

Rudolph’s Bluebird Houses has hosted workshops in bluebird house building. During the pandemic, building and painting the houses has become an activity for families while they’re cooped up at home.

What’s been lost with no-contact pickups continues online, on the Rudolph’s Bluebird Houses Facebook page as well as Boike’s Rise Up Bluebird Grief Support Group on Facebook. Page followers have sent pictures of bluebirds in their houses, nesting materials, along with other updates.

“I feel like the community we’ve built on our Facebook page has been lifted up even more [during the pandemic],” said Boike. “They love the story behind [the bluebird houses] and love feeling like they’re a part of it. Everybody’s lost somebody and everyone can resonate with what we’re doing.”

Customers have also shared their own creative coping skills with Boike and Rudolph during the pandemic.

In one message, a customer wrote: “The birdhouses kicked off this unique bonding experience with all six of our kids over the bluebirds. From there it was red finches and goldfinches and cardinals, and now we’ve turned our yard into a bird sanctuary and all of us love spending time together watching the birds.”

In a letter to Boike, a woman named Nancy Huber explained that her late husband was a sculptor, and his last finished work was a sculpture of bluebirds as he saw them near their Colorado home. After her husband died of heart failure 12 years ago, she used crocheting as a coping mechanism. Moved by Boike and Rudolph’s story, Huber crocheted hats out of “bluebird blue” yarn and sent them to Boike and her family as well as Rudolph and his father.

The Boike family received these crocheted hats from a woman who read the Rudolph’s Bluebird Houses story online. Pictured from left: Noah, Joe, Ryan, Kristy, Grace and Matthew Boike. (Photo courtesy of Kristy Boike)

“We’re all in it together, kind of like with loss and grief,” said Boike. “Everyone’s going through it. We know how painful it is. What we have is an emblem of hope at the end of it, a creation for new life.”

TCU, Holy Cross implement distance learning plans

Minnesota schools have prepared to teach students from afar in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a week of closures, school districts across the state and in the Lonsdale area, prepared distance learning plans that went into effect March 30 and will last through May 4 under an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz.

Here’s how Tri-City United Schools and Holy Cross Catholic Schools have implemented distance learning so far.

TCU Schools

The Tri-City United school district teaches students through several digital platforms. For students K-12, they view assignments and connect with their teachers over Google Classroom. Students 7-12 use Moodle, as well, for their assignments. Teachers within the district use these platforms, along with digital tools, such as email, Google Docs, Google Slides and Google Meets to engage with their students.

Teachers may also use Flipgrid, a program which allows teachers to create an online assignment and students to respond with a video, text or image. Resources for how to use an iPad or Chromebook are available on the Tri-City United website’s distance learning plan resources for parents.

K-6 teachers look for daily activity through the use of Seesaw, Google Classroom, email or other modes of communication. This activity may happen live or at another time of day, including evenings. Students are encouraged to be live with their teachers if they are able, but this is not mandatory. If a student is sick, families should call the school to report their child absent. Similar to a typical school day, teachers will assist students with catching up with missed work due to illness.

For grades 7-8, first hour teachers at TCU Montgomery or advisory teachers at TCU Le Center will be looking for activity through the use of Moodle, Google Classroom, e-mail or other modes of communication. Like K-6 students, 7-8 grade students are encouraged to follow along with their teachers’ live and they should report an absence if they are sick.

For grades 9-12, advisory teachers will send out a Google Form to students each morning, which students must complete before the following morning to be considered present for the day.

“Schedules will vary depending upon grade levels of students in order to be age-appropriate,” said TCU Superintendent Teri Preisler. “Each day will have a mix of ‘live interaction’ between educators and students with some being a full class discussion or lesson and some will be with smaller groups of students. There will also be video recorded instruction so it is available for students at any time.”

On Mondays through Thursdays, TCU follow coordinated schedules with Fridays as a day for connecting with students on more of an individual basis for support.

TCU is expanding internet access to those without regular access through a hot spot grant and TCU IT/Facilities Director Carl Menk has been directly working with families, internet companies, and businesses to set up as many means for internet access as possible. TCU schools will also have external WiFi access starting on April 1, and the district is developing a partnership with Palmer Bus to set up two vans as mobile WiFi access. Students without internet options available will be delivered texts and packets.

Holy Cross

Unlike many area schools, Holy Cross Catholic School already began implementing distance learning March 17. Students attended school March 16, a Monday, and packed up their materials under the assumption they would spend two weeks out of school.

After Walz extended school closures to May 4, Principal Constance Krocak emailed an update to Holy Cross families.

“From my perspective, our distance learning model is going well,” Krocak wrote in her email. “We have had some technology bumps along the way, but overall the learning pathways are open and our students are progressing and learning. I am so grateful to our teachers, to our students, and to our school families who have embraced and are transitioning to this model of education that is so new to us all!”

Amy Lemke, administration assistant at Holy Cross, every grade level looks different as far as distance learning goes. Kindergartners received bags with counting blocks, geometric shapes and other hands-on learning materials. Students “meet” with their teachers via Zoom and Google Meet and use a calendar in Google Classroom to know their assignments for the day.

Lemke said only one Holy Cross household doesn’t have internet, but that family put a plan in place. As for devices, all middle school students have Chromebooks while younger students had the option to bring their iPads home. Most if not all families have some kind of desktop or laptop, said Lemke.

“We definitely have the advantage of being smaller,” said Lemke. “We had supplies ready and could send things home.”

Six TCU superintendent candidates named, first round of interviews completed

Twenty-three candidates applied for the Tri-City United superintendent position, and the School Board narrowed those down to six finalists last week, before narrowing them further after interviews Friday.

The two or three remaining candidates will go through their second and final round of interviews during a special meeting April 7. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all interviews shifted to a virtual format. They will be recorded for public viewing on the district’s website, and public comments for School Board meetings may be sent to brosier@tcu2905.us or 507-364-8100.

The six original finalists included:

Carmen Daniels-Strahan

Carmen Daniels-Strahan is the middle school principal of Mankato Area Public Schools. She previously served as assistant principal of Jefferson High School of Alexandria Public Schools and dean of students for grades four through 12 in Foley Public Schools. She was also a teacher, dean of students and assistant principal in Orange County Public Schools in Florida.

Daniels-Strahan holds a bachelor’s degree in social studies and secondary education, a Master of Science in educational leadership, a K-12 administrative certificate and K-12 superintendent certificate.

The Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals previously named Daniels-Strahan Middle School Principal of the Year in the Southwest division, and she also earned Disney’s Teacherrific Award.

“I believe in Learner Success through aligned, viable and rigorous curriculum to meet Individual student needs and assure learner excellence and readiness,” Daniels-Strahan wrote in her application. “… Collaboration and communication are the core competencies for success between communities and school districts. I believe in Sustainable Systems and Structures through fiscally responsible resources for continued growth, quality respected staff and systematic leadership, philosophy, practice and culture.”

Lisa Edwards

Lisa Edwards is the director of continuous improvement at Farmington Area Schools.

She is the former K-5 principal of Meadowview Elementary in Farmington and previously taught as an adjunct instructor for master’s and principal licensure cohorts at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis. In Windom Area Schools, she served as PreK-5 principal. She taught kindergarten and third grade at Kennedy Community School in St. Joseph and kindergarten at Cedar Park Elementary in Apple Valley.

Edwards holds a bachelor’s degree in education (elementary, pre-primary and reading), a master’s of education in teaching and learning, a principal licensure and superintendent certificate.

She noted some of her strengths as “Strong leadership abilities,” “excellent relationship skills,” “ability to delegate responsibilities,” and “strong student guidance and support skills” among others.

Doug Froke

Doug Froke is the current superintendent of the Detroit Lakes School District. He previously served as superintendent of the Windom and Fulda school districts.

Froke has an educational specialist degree in school administration and a bachelor’s degree in education.

A member of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) Board of Directors, Froke is a previous recipient of the Region 4 Administrator of Excellence Award.

David Helke

David Helke is a high school principal in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district, where he previously served as Eagle Ridge Junior High School principal.

Helke is the former assistant principal of Oltman Junior High School in South Washington County Schools and the former coordinator of the River Bend Alternative Program in New Ulm.

Helke holds a BS in Bacteriology, a science teaching license, a master’s in educational leadership and a K-12 principal license.

He has received the Sun Current Reader’s Choice Award for Best Principal as well as the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals Hennepin Division Principal of the Year Award.

In his application, Helke describes himself as a “Believer in personalizing learning, creating multiple pathways for learners to be successful, and supporting engagement and empowerment in the learning experience.”

Michael Neubeck

Michael Neubeck is the middle school principal of Mahtomedi Public Schools. He previously served as middle school principal and elementary principal of Shakopee Public Schools, and assistant middle school principal and assistant high school principal in North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Public Schools.

He previously served as middle school principal and elementary principal of Shakopee Public Schools, and assistant middle school principal and assistant high school principal in North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Public Schools

Neubeck holds a bachelor’s in English, a master’s in educational leadership, an Ed.D (doctor of education) in educational leadership and a superintendent licensure.

He has been named a Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP) Middle Level Principal of the Year in the Capitol Division and a MASSP Middle Level Assistant Principal of the Year in the Capitol Division.

In a statement on his application, Neubeck wrote: “… I view my position as a leader is to work to create an educational environment that is safe for all, academically challenging and supportive for students at all levels, and financially responsible for the community …”

Involved in the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP)

Lonnie Seifert

Lonnie Seifert is the superintendent of GFW (Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop) Schools.

Seifert previously served New Prague High School, as assistant principal and then principal. He also served as activities director and dean of students for ROCORI High School in Cold Springs and activities director and dean of students for Montgomery-Lonsdale Schools before the district consolidated with Le Center.

In his application, Seifert said, “A great deal of my time has also been spent working on building a sense of togetherness in a district with a history of being three separate communities.”

He holds a bachelor of arts in elementary education with coaching certification, a master’s degree in educational administration, a K-12 principal licensure and a superintendent licensure.

Seifert has been named Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals Hennepin Division Assistant Principal of the Year.