January doesn’t mark the start to a new school year for Tri-City United Schools, but 2021 still signifies a turning point for students as they pivot out of distance learning.
Tri-City United Superintendent Lonnie Seifert said the district stayed in the hybrid model longer than he expected for the 2020-21 year. It wasn’t until 10 weeks into the school year that TCU Schools shifted to full-time distance learning, and following winter break, students return to class the second full week of January, either in person or as hybrid learners.
“I think the biggest issue we faced in the beginning of my first six months here is so many unknowns,” said Seifert, who started his tenure with TCU Schools in the midst of the pandemic. “ … I think from an administrative standpoint, whether myself or principals at each of the buildings, it’s been difficult to do long-term planning.”
Even with students returning to school — full-time in person for students in pre-K through sixth grade and hybrid for grades seven through 12 — Seifert recognizes the outcome of the pivot is another unknown. With the vaccine becoming more accessible locally, he is hopeful that students can safely stay in school.
During a year when the district had intended to explore adjustments for the English language arts programming specifically, Seifert said identifying ways to address the instructional needs of students has taken precedence as the piece needing most attention.
The best way the district can gauge student progress for now, said Seifert, is by looking at the results of the FAST (Functional Academic Skills Test) assessment students took in the fall and will again take this winter and spring. Realistically, he predicts the test results will reflect less growth than usual, due to the reduction of direct contact between students and their teachers. But since pre-K-6 students will take the assessments immediately following distance learning this month and again in the spring, after some time back in the classroom, the results will help teachers compare the impact of one format over the other.
To evaluate TCU’s implementation of the hybrid model, the district released a survey for parents in the fall. According to Seifert, in breaking down the four district buildings, 60% to 67% of families felt the online pieces were better or significantly better than spring 2020, when the district had limited time to prepare for distance learning. The biggest frustration for parents, as noted in the survey, is needing to act as a teacher to their children after coming home from work.
Winter sports began Jan. 4, and athletes start participating in games and competitions Jan. 14. As of the first day athletics resumed, Seifert said no spectators are allowed. Basketball and hockey players must wear masks while playing, which is a stricter guideline than what health professionals recommended for fall sports.
Although he once struggled with the idea of starting activities before students return to class, Seifert said he realizes now that giving those opportunities to students, when they’re already separated from friends, could benefit their mental health.
Non-athletic activities have also resumed in whatever format works best. Theater students have been preparing their one act play submission for competitions, and the department hopes to push back the musical to later in the spring. Students in activities, such as knowledge bowl, have participated in practices virtually.
By the middle to the end of February, Seifert said the administration will need to decide how to go about prom, which typically lands in April or early May. Discussions about graduation will start in March.
“We’re trying to make decisions for things four or five months down the road and we don’t know what the guidelines will be at that time,” Seifert said.
Thinking ahead to summer, one goal of the staff is to consider ways to make up for the broken instructional patterns that resulted from school closures. One option he mentioned involves enhanced summer school programming to support students who fell behind while navigating distance and hybrid learning.
Seifert also acknowledged that some students have realized they prefer distance learning over instruction in person, so the district plans to explore potential online options for those students.
“I think everybody’s goal is that now, as we come back, hopefully we don’t have to take a step backwards but can stay in this model,” Seifert said. “Ideally, when September 2021 comes around, we can go back to what is a normal educational setting.”
Even as the calendar turned to 2021, Rice County Administrator Sara Folsted and the County’s five-member Board of Commissioners remain absorbed by the issue that consumed 2020 — the public health and economic consequences of COVID-19.
On Dec. 30, Rice County Public Health kicked off its first vaccination clinic a week after receiving a shipment of 200 doses. A group of 50 individuals, including Sheriff Troy Dunn and Faribault Fire Chief Dustin Dienst, were among the first recipients of the vaccine in Rice County.
Vaccination is taking place in a highly coordinated manner, following the state’s official Immunize to Impact plan. It’s designed to ensure that the most vulnerable Minnesotans receive protection first.
“Getting the vaccines out is really harder than most people think,” said outgoing County Board Chair Dave Miller.
As the state works its way through the most vulnerable groups, Folsted said that immunizations are likely to continue throughout the year. In addition to distributing vaccines, the county will also have to explore ways to support local businesses through another difficult year.
Though the county’s budget limits how much direct relief it can provide, the state government has sent it about $1.3 million in business assistance to distribute. For that particular pot of money, awards must be made by March 15 with distribution by April 1. Folsted said that the county, which successfully distributed several rounds of assistance last year, is updating its application process and will bring it before the board next week.
District 2 County Commissioner Galen Malecha expressed optimism that the county would be able to provide more assistance for businesses, but emphasized that its pursuit of long-term economic development goals is continuing as well.
In particular, efforts to expand access to broadband in rural areas of Rice County will continue. Under state law, all Minnesotans are supposed to have access to broadband with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps by 2022. While Rice County has continued to make progress, in the southeast and southwest portions of the county many are still without broadband access. Statewide, the latest figures from the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development show that about 7.5% of Minnesotans lack access.
Increasing access to broadband in rural areas has been a priority for years. Without rural broadband, advocates say that rural communities effectively find themselves locked out of educational and economic opportunities at the core of the 21st century economy.
Road projects in store
Several transportation projects are also expected to take this place, including a project intended to help the county make the most of the I-35 corridor.
The Baseline Road reconstruction project was scheduled to break ground in 2020 with a two-year timeline. The 2.3 mile stretch serves as I-35’s eastern frontage road, extending from its intersection with County Road 1 to County Road 8. The project was slated to be half of a marquee highway project for 2020, along with reconstruction of a 2.8-mile stretch of County Road 46 which serves as I-35’s western frontage road.
However, while the County Road 46 project proceeded, the Baseline Road project got caught in the eminent domain process after landowners refused to cede their rights to the land. COVID-19 closed the courts pushing hearings back for months.
The county will also work on securing dollars and completing a comprehensive analysis of the proposed roundabout on the east side of the I-35/Highway 19 interchange, which would provide easy access to the frontage roads while dramatically improving safety on the southbound exit ramp.
The project has long been a priority of the county and its Board of Commissioners. After years of prodding, the Minnesota Department of Transportation finally initiated and funded a traffic study which found a roundabout to be the best solution. So far, the county has managed to secure about $2 million in grants, $1.1 million from the Minnesota Highway Freight Program and $900,000 through the state’s Local Partnership Program. Together those awards would cover roughly two-thirds of the project cost.
To cover the remaining amount, County Engineer Dennis Luebbe has requested $700,000 from the Transportation Economic Development Program and $400,000 in Highway Safety Improvement Funding. If there’s still a funding gap after those four grant applications are announced, Luebbe said the county would have to look at persuading MnDOT to fund part of the project through District 6 construction dollars.
Two big projects
The first completed project of 2020 will be the county highway shop addition in Faribault, which is scheduled to wrap this month. With the county’s maintenance needs continuing to grow, a larger shop was identified as a key priority in a 2016 space needs study.
Once the expansion to the 1975 facility is complete, the added shop space will enable the county to add another four heated garage stalls for heavy machinery as well as an expanded parts room. The shop area break room and men’s bathroom will also receive much needed expansions and upgrades, and a new women’s bathroom will be added. The renovation will add a dedicated full-sized conference room for meetings and other large gatherings. Smaller office spaces for private discussions, providing privacy for sensitive discussions that currently is often hard to come by.
Another key county facility identified as in need of space was the county jail. The issue has so alarmed the Minnesota Department of Corrections that in late 2019 it threatened to designate the jail as a 90-day facility.
If that designation takes place, moderate- and maximum-security prisoners who need to be held for longer than 90 days would have to be moved to a neighboring county jail and shuttled back and forth for court dates and other appointments. Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn has estimated that this could mean extra expense to the county of around $500,000 per year.
The state’s order caught the county off guard, but it’s part of an initiative by Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell to reduce the rate of recidivism by offering educational and recreational programming for the incarcerated.
“We have to be frugal with how much we spend, but some things are almost out of our control,” said Miller. “We almost have to do this, but we’ll see how it works out.”
Already, the county has started making plans for a potential expansion. In October, a county board subcommittee discussed the purchase of a small parcel of land next to the county law enforcement center for potential use as part of the expansion.
One feature of the updated Comprehensive Plan will be a new chapter focused on environmental sustainability. That’s music to the ears of members of Northfield’s Citizens Climate Lobby, who have urged commissioners to give greater consideration to environmental issues.
Commissioners Malecha and Steve Underdahl will participate in two new subcommittees, one focused on environmental sustainability, the other on diversity and inclusion.
In some ways, the county is simply following the lead of its two largest cities. Both Faribault and Northfield have worked hard to become more environmentally sustainable in recent years, providing resources for residents who want to reduce their carbon footprint and implementing in-house changes as well. Both have also established environmental commissions including community members well versed in many aspects of environmental sustainability. Underdahl noted that the county is in some ways simply catching up.
The diversity and inclusion commission was created in response to significant demographic changes that have taken place in Rice County. Though 86% of county residents were white as of the 2010 census, the number of non-white and foreign-born residents is growing rapidly.
Tyler Skluzacek remembers his dad as a fun, outgoing man before he left to serve in Iraq. When Patrick Skluzacek came home to Lonsdale in 2007, says his son, he had changed.
Patrick was being consumed by nightmares. At night his dreams took him back to Fallujah, where he had served in the U.S. Army as a convoy commander. He sweated profusely and thrashed around in his sleep, sometimes violently.
The nightmares were so vivid and so terrible that he feared closing his eyes. The only way he could get to sleep was with vodka and pills, he says.
Patrick’s life began to unwind. His marriage fell apart. “[I] pretty much lost everything,” he says, fighting back tears. “My house, everything, my job, everything went.”
It’s not an unfamiliar story for those who have served in war zones. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 52% of combat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder have nightmares fairly often, compared with 3% of the general public. They take a toll — not just on soldiers, but on their families.
Patrick’s son, however, would give the story a different ending.
A hackathon to help those with PTSD
Tyler was a senior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, in 2015 when he heard about a computer hackathon being held in Washington, D.C. Developers come together over an intense few days to build prototypes to tackle a specific problem. This particular hackathon focused on developing mobile applications to help people with PTSD.
Tyler scraped together his on-campus job earnings and bought a ticket to Washington. During the hackathon, he put together a team to program a smartwatch to detect the onset of night terrors based on the wearer’s heart rate and movement.
It was night and day when I put that watch on and it started working.
The idea, Tyler says, was to use technology to imitate something service dogs were already doing — recognizing a traumatic nightmare and then nudging or licking the person to disrupt the bad dream. He thought the smartwatch could do this with a gentle vibration.
The tricky part was to provide “just enough stimulus to pull them out of the deep REM cycle and allow the sleep to continue unaffected,” Tyler says.
Dad as guinea pig
Getting the app to actually work — to recognize a nightmare and respond with just the right touch — would require a lot of trial and error. But what better test subject than your own dad?
Patrick was game, but the experiment got off to a rocky start. In the early trials, the zapping watch spooked Patrick awake. And because he initially wore the watch around-the-clock, there were some startling readings.
The app works with an Apple Watch to treat PTSD-related nightmare disorders.
The two break up laughing when they remember what happened when Patrick wore the watch while using an air hammer.
“I still remember you had me wearing it full time,” says Patrick, who lives in Blaine, Minn. “You thought I was having a heart attack because I had the watch on, and you thought my heart rate was 6,000 beats per minute.”
“I was terrified,” says Tyler, who is now a graduate student in computer science at the University of Chicago. “Watching someone’s data 24/7, I feel like is a lot like having a baby. I don’t have a baby. But you’re suddenly very concerned at all hours.”
With constant fine-tuning as his dad slept in the next room, Tyler eventually perfected the algorithm. “Having someone that close to you and knowing exactly when those nightmares happen was super important to training a model like that,” Tyler says.
For Patrick, once they got the formula right, the watch was life-changing. “It was night and day when I put that watch on and it started working.” The vibrations, he says, were “little miracles.”
After years of suffering, Patrick finally found relief. He was able to get his life back. He has remarried and he’s working as a mechanic again. There are the occasional bad dreams, but they no longer rule his life.
More people will soon be able to benefit from Tyler’s invention. An investor purchased the rights to the app and started a company called NightWare.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved the app, which works with an Apple Watch, to treat PTSD-related nightmare disorders. It will soon be available by prescription through the VA.