Thanks to a partnership between the Rice County and Le Sueur County Sheriff’s offices, a new drone program could use cutting-edge technology to enhance public safety for years into the future.
In January 2020, the Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Office announced that the department had joined together with Rice County to purchase a drone to aid with police work. Even as COVID brought so much to a halt, the drone program proceeded.
While the Le Sueur County Sheriff’s Department hasn’t yet flown its drone in a “real life situation, Rice County has already done so. It’s not the first drone dispatched by a Rice County public safety agency — Northfield’s Fire Department has had a drone of their own.
Last summer, Northfield Fire and Rescue used a drone for the first time in an emergency situation. Prior to that, it had been used to track down criminal suspects. Fire Chief Gerry Franek said that the department has no particular guidelines on its use.
With drone technology seeing more and more use by police departments across the country, some civil liberties advocates are increasingly concerned that the devices could be used to erode the privacy rights of law-abiding citizens.
Under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, “unreasonable searches and seizures” are prohibited. Earlier this year, Minnesota’s legislature passed a first in its nation reform to limit the use of drones and safeguard that central constitutional right. The list of exceptions to the law is long and broad. They include usage during, or in the aftermath of a public emergency, for officer training or public relations purposes, or to collect information over a public area if a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity exists.
Still, the bill enjoyed support from police groups, civil liberties advocates and nearly all legislators. The American Civil Liberties of Minnesota said that while it allows for drone use in more cases than they would have liked, it boosts transparency.
Even with today’s technology, there’s certainly no shortage of ways the instruments can be used. The DJI Matrice 210 model drone purchased by the department is particularly cutting edge, and specifically designed with a number of public safety tasks in mind.
Among its potential uses include assistance with search and rescue operations, monitoring traffic collisions, collision reconstruction, analyzing crime scenes, finding drugs and illegal items, and investigating and locating potential threats and suspects.
The DJI Matrice 210, a large drone with 17-inch propellers capable of flying in strong winds, sub-zero temperatures and designed to resist water and difficult weather conditions, is particularly well suited to Minnesota’s wide range of weather conditions,
“It’s another great tool to have,” said Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn. “It’s certainly cheaper than calling a helicopter or plane down from a neighboring jurisdiction or the state.”
The drone comes equipped with a daytime camera and a thermal-imaging camera which can view the ground from 400 feet in the air. Officers can pilot the drone from a maximum distance of 5 miles away with a remote control that can display the drone’s video feed.
With a battery, the drone can remain in the air for nearly 40 minutes. The sheriff’s offices have multiple batteries on hand for longer missions and a 200-foot tether which can power the drone indefinitely.
While in the sky, the drone has a full range of movement — it’s able to ascend, descend, move in all directions and rotate. Able to ascend at a max speed of 16 feet per second, the drone can be deployed quickly.
The drone can be flown at a maximum distance of 400 feet above the ground and 400 feet above any structure. While the drone is capable of flying higher, it must remain in that airspace so that it does not obstruct the flight paths of birds and helicopters.
Funds for the drone came from money and assets seized by the Le Sueur/Rice County Drug Task Force. Dunn said that thermal imaging and high-tech zooming capabilities, the drone makes it easy to find a suspect even if they’re hidden or it’s dark outside.
The thermal-imaging camera capability is also highly useful for fighting fires. By flying the drone over a fire, firefighters can get an overview of the area and see which places have the hottest temperatures.
Earlier this spring, the drones proved their use in multiple criminal cases, helping to track down suspects accused of ATV theft, domestic assault and a shooting at Faribault’s Days Inn. Dunn said that the flexible device is proving its worth in many ways.
“The drones give us a different vantage point,” he noted. “That allows us to be able to do things we couldn’t normally do.”
Minnesota state officials on Thursday unveiled a plan to reopen schools this fall that gives districts some flexibility to toggle between in-person and online learning, but reserves the right for the state to step in if the coronavirus gets out of control.
As part of the state’s 21-page Safe Learning Plan, schools in a county with a COVID-19 infection ratio of up to nine cases per 10,000 people within 14 days of the first day of school instruction would be eligible to reopen on a full-time basis. Schools in counties with an infection rate of between nine and 50 per 10,000 could try to reopen on a more limited basis for full- or part-time classes, with younger students having the highest priority to return to the school building. Schools in counties with more than 50 cases per 10,000 residents would need to have solely online classes.
The first scheduled day of instruction at Northfield is scheduled for Sept. 8. As of July 18, Rice County’s infection rate per 10,000 people was 10.2. Northfield students who live outside Rice County would still use the local data.
Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann noted the district is still evaluating the governor’s plan, adding there is a good chance the learning format will need to change throughout the year as the Rice County infection rate continues to shift.
The departments of Education and Health are expected to work with school districts and local health professionals throughout the school year to help the districts decide, based on the progression of COVID-19 and the spread of the virus in specific communities, whether to transition between learning models. According to the governor’s office, the plan prioritizes keeping younger children in the classroom with the understanding that transmission is less likely for them and that in-person learning is critical for their development.
Districts will work with the state Health and Education departments to determine whether to use in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model. The plan requires both public schools and charter schools to allow students and teachers to choose remote learning no matter what model the district chooses.
To Hillmann, the state’s plan successfully threads the needle between the desire for local control and the need to follow the advice of health officials.
He added Gov. Tim Walz has emphasized that the daily decisions Minnesotans make in wearing face coverings and staying home when sick will decide the fall learning format, noting he believes there needs to be a shared societal responsibility in following the governor’s advice for schools to quickly reopen.
State health and education officials in June asked school districts to prepare for three scenarios: in-person learning for all students, distance learning as in the spring, or a hybrid learning scenario with social distancing and capacity limits.
To prepare for the possible scenarios, Northfield Public Schools has had three teams each consisting of 12-19 people who have been meeting several times a week and represent teachers, custodians, nurses, the District Youth Council, assistants and others. The groups have focused on instructional design, logistics and health.
Hillmann noted the district plans to share information relating to the fall learning format with families late next week and then continue communicating with them on an ongoing basis. Further consultation is also expected with Rice County Public Health on how schools can safely reopen.
“We thank people for their grace and for their patience,” he said.
Northfield Public Schools is offering an online-only option for families who don’t feel comfortable having their students return to school this fall. The program is led by district teachers, and families will be provided additional information as the development process continues. Sixth- through 12th-grade students will have a self-paced learning format through the online program with help from a licensed teacher. K-5 students will have direct instruction with self-learning opportunities. There will be video-based instruction with a licensed elementary teacher who has experience in teaching online courses.
Randolph Public Schools Superintendent Mike Kelley said those in child care and preschool and K-6 students will return to exclusively in-person instruction. Students in grades seven through nine will start the first of school with in-person instruction while ninth- through 12th-graders begin in an exclusively distance learning format for the week. From there, those two age groups will alternate in-person and distance learning formats on a weekly basis.
Kelley, who is expected to lead a Facebook Live session with parents on Monday night, anticipates that decision to free up congregate areas and allow for proper social distancing on school buses, lunches and hallways. Students will not initially receive lockers and will instead walk straight to classrooms.
“I feel extremely confident in our plan,” he said.
Randolph Public Schools recently added 11 classrooms at the elementary level and three more learning areas, a move that is expected to allow for more isolation.
To Kelley, the state’s plan makes sense to him. He emphasized the importance of developing a learning plan weeks before the school year starts to give families enough time to plan for child care and work schedules.
“It’s always good to have some data,” he said.
In terms of access to technology, Kelley said the vast majority of students have their own devices, and the district will supply them for those who don’t.
State leaders: Safety is a top priority
In announcing the plan, Walz acknowledged the importance of schools and the value of in-person learning, but said the state’s top priority is safety.
“As a classroom teacher for more than 20 years and a parent of a child in public schools, I am committed to providing a world-class education to our students while keeping them and their teachers safe,” Walz said. “With this approach, we are pairing the knowledge and data from our Departments of Health and Education with the expertise of our local school districts to make the best decisions for our students across the state.”
Republicans and some school officials had pressed Walz to leave reopening plans up to individual districts, arguing that local administrators know best how to protect students.
The guidance comes as coronavirus cases have been moving upward in some parts of the state. Minnesota reported 745 new cases on Thursday — slightly higher than the seven-day average — and five new deaths. State officials have warned of rising hospitalizations, but that number dipped slightly in Thursday’s data.
President Donald Trump has pressed schools nationwide to open for in-person learning, but many teachers have expressed fears of doing so. Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, last week released a survey with just one in five teachers supporting in-person learning.
Administrators for Minneapolis Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, said Tuesday they plan to start the school year Sept. 8 with distance learning. Their plan would require remote learning as the primary method of instruction, though buildings would remain open for tutoring, technology and mental health support for students and families.
Also on Thursday, Walz announced an additional $250 million of funding to provide face coverings for students, educators and staff members. The funding will also allow for the deployment of a COVID-19 testing plan for educators and staff members, help to cover costs for cleaning supplies, transportation, technology needs and Wi-Fi access; and to offer digital navigation training, tutors, translation services, mental health support and professional development.
Walz ordered Minnesota public and charter schools to close and switch to distance learning in mid-March as COVID-19 cases began to appear in the state, affecting nearly 900,000 students and their families. As the number of coronavirus cases in Minnesota grew, the governor extended the closure through the school year and prohibited large-scale high school and college graduation ceremonies.
Five people, including two incumbent Northfield School Board members, had announced their intention to seek election for four open seats as of Tuesday.
The two incumbents are Noel Stratmoen and Amy Goerwitz, and the three seeking their first four-year terms on the board include Robert Coleman, Claudia Gonzalez-George and Corey Butler. School Board member Rob Hardy announced late last year he would not seek reelection. Ellen Iverson announced in May she won’t run for another term.
Stratmoen’s time as a Northfield School Board member, considered one of the longest in the state, began in July 1980.
“I believe I bring knowledge, experience and continuity to the board and to the community,” Stratmoen wrote in a letter announcing his reelection bid.
Discussing the unprecedented impact COVID-19 is having on local school districts, Stratmoen said although he doesn’t know everything about the pandemic, he has extensive experience regarding budget and transportation issues.
“They will be big issues during this time of social distancing,” he said.
During the course of Stratmoen’s tenure, a number of district referendums have passed, most recently the $41 million referendum in 2018 to build a new Greenvale Park Elementary School building and complete construction work at other schools.
Stratmoen and his wife, Lois, moved to Northfield in 1965 from Brookings, South Dakota, where she had taught high school math and he was an employee at South Dakota State University.
Stratmoen said he was drawn to the community from his initial job at Sheldahl and Northfield’s reputation as an education center.
“When I left my job at Sheldahl to commute to Minneapolis for work at Control Data and later Seagate Corp., we purposely chose to continue to live in Northfield … mostly for the strength of education opportunities for our children,” he said.
Stratmoen said that decision paid off. He spoke highly of the education his two children received from Northfield Public Schools and the positive impact the city has had on the family. Stratmoen has volunteered for public service with the Northfield Arts Guild, Northfield Historical Society and his church.
“For all the benefits given to me and to my family by this community, the public schools have been the most influential,” Stratmoen wrote. “With a strong sense of public service, serving on the Board of Education is the best way to express my appreciation.”
“My training in secondary education, the years I spent in industry and past experience with school board issues will provide me with good insight to addressing future decisions too.”
Goerwitz, who was first elected in 2016, sees her experience over the last four years as providing her with an introduction to the important issues that would guide her in a second term.
The year after she was elected, Northfield voters approved an increased operating levy but rejected a $109 million bond referendum to construct new Northfield High School and Greenvale Park Elementary buildings and conduct smaller renovations.
The following year the smaller referendum, including the Greenvale Park Elementary component, passed. In addition to the highest-cost component, Goerwitz expressed appreciation that smaller renovations are allowing for new space for community services and early childhood learning.
Goerwitz acknowledged COVID-19 is the most pressing issue the district now faces. The learning format students will operate under is still unclear, and Goerwitz knows that in addition to heeding Minnesota Department of Health guidelines, the School Board will make decisions that impact people, students and staff. She believes a one-size-fits-all approach might not work. Instead, she said as many options as possible must be presented while ensuring the safety of everyone.
“It’s really important to keep the students and staff and teachers all safe,” she said. “Safety is definitely the most important issue.”
Goerwitz has spoken with Superintendent Matt Hillmann regarding making sure student handbooks are formatted in a friendlier way for youth and their parents. Another possibility that is being evaluated by Northfield Public Schools includes changing the district’s learning curriculum to include more stories from diverse populations to ensure students of color don’t feel marginalized.
“I don’t think they do now, but I don’t think they feel completely heard either,” she said.
Another top attraction Goerwitz, who has lived in Northfield since 2002, sees in running for reelection is the composition of the School Board, and how, to her, members work to maximize the potential of Northfield Public Schools.
“It’s a very high-functioning group,” she said. “I want to be part of that.”
Coleman, a stay-at-home father of two, said he chose to run primarily because he sees a need for representation for the parents of the young.
Coleman, who has lived in Northfield for three years, has been involved with Early Childhood Family Education and the Hand in Hand preschool program. He just finished a term as the district’s Community Advisory Board chair, has served on the Communications Committee and the remodeling board of the former Greenvale Park Elementary School building. He also assisted in the group supporting the successful 2018 district referendum.
Coleman said if elected, he wants to do a better job of making schools open, accessible and welcoming for all students.
He added he hopes Northfield Public Schools remains a positive financial steward and receives more state funding.
“We must maintain excellent and financially stable schools, in spite of continually insufficient funding from the state and federal governments,” he wrote in a Facebook post announcing his candidacy. “For years, unfunded mandates have greatly increased costs for schooling without adequate monetary support.”
Coleman comes from a family of teachers and school administrators. His wife is a Carleton Spanish faculty member.
“It’s of vital importance,” he said of a public education for all students. “Those ideas have surrounded me for a long time,” he said.
In terms of the district’s COVID-19 response, Coleman said leaders need to prioritize the opinions of outside health experts. He also called for an increased focus on the mental health needs of students and staff.
Coleman, who expects to run a socially distanced campaign due to the pandemic, spoke highly of the work undertaken by Superintendent Hillmann and the quality relationship between the School Board and the district the group serves.
“Hopefully I can help with that,” he said.
Butler, a former reporter for the Faribault Daily News and Northfield News, has lived in Northfield since 2009. He cited his experience sifting through public documents as a journalist and his being a parent of young children as School Board qualifications.
To Butler, who works as a communications professional with the nonprofit Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants, public service is important in all levels of government. Despite his belief that the School Board has done well in handling a lack of state funding for education, he believes parents, especially those with younger children, need to play a larger role on the board to ensure their perspectives are heard. Butler said he also wants to ensure prudent fiscal practices are in place and Northfield students of all ethnicities and backgrounds are given a fair chance to succeed while attending school.
He spoke highly of Gov. Tim Walz’s decision last week to grant local school districts more leeway in choosing this fall’s learning format in the wake of COVID-19 depending on virus transmission rates. He said though Northfield Public Schools might have to shift its learning format throughout the year as the progression of the virus continues and an effective vaccine emerges, the district still needs to ensure communication is as strong as possible with all stakeholders.
Gonzalez-George, who has lived in Northfield for a couple years, said a number of factors sparked her interest in running for the board. One reason she cited was the School Board’s quality reputation and the community’s overall regard for education.
She said she hopes to ensure that reputation remains strong, the district continues being financially sustainable, and student needs be met.
“We have a very good school district and we have great staff, but there’s always room for improvement,” Gonzalez-George said.
In citing her qualifications, she spoke of her experience as a teacher in another community and grasp of education forged through other locations.
Gonzalez-George is the mother of a NHS graduate, and her youngest child is entering 10th grade. She has worked at Northfield Community Action Center as a community advocate since February.
Discussing COVID-19 and the ongoing impact the virus is having on school districts, Gonzalez-George said she supports any approach that follows Minnesota Department of Health guidelines and feels the hybrid model of in-person and distance learning is the most comfortable for her.
Carleton College is expecting 85% of its student body to return to Northfield for classes this fall, despite the ongoing threat posed by COVID-19.
Carleton plans for classes to begin Sept. 14 and end Nov. 23. However, the college is expecting student move-in dates to change as officials stagger student on-campus arrival times. According to the college, the decision to bring students back to campus was made after extensive work with outside health professionals.
The school is advising students and their families to not make travel arrangements just yet.
Carleton plans to offer a mix of socially distanced in-person instruction and online courses. Some classes are expected to utilize both formats. In-person classes will be limited to a maximum of 30 students.
There will be 20-minute breaks between class periods to ensure safe social distancing in common areas. In-person or hybrid courses will only be available for students living on campus or in Northfield. Students are not required to return to campus to continue their education this fall, and faculty members need not agree to teach in-person courses.
“These varied delivery methods are necessary in order to manage classroom spaces and accommodate students and faculty who are working and studying remotely,” according to Carleton. “All students should expect to take some online courses — including those living on campus.”
International students whose visas are at risk are being prioritized for in-person education.
Faculty and staff will need to sign a pledge stating how they will abide by the protocols, and all members of the campus community need to wear a face covering in common spaces. No in-person convocations or large assemblies will be held.
COVID-19 testing will be administered for anyone returning to campus, and new community standards require students, faculty and staff to monitor their health on a daily basis, wear face coverings when in common spaces and abide by new restrictions relating to gatherings and visitors. Testing will continue through the semester.
“The health of our community members remains our top priority, and we are committed to making equitable accommodations for those who determine that it is in their best interest to remain off-campus,” the college said.
St. Olaf College has announced its campus will open for the Aug. 20 fall semester start date, hoping that the early opening will reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the midst of the late fall/winter flu season. Ole students are also expected to wear face coverings, maintain physical distancing, and adhere to illness, isolation and quarantine protocols. Students, staff and faculty members will receive a kit from the college that includes a thermometer, two face coverings, a face shield and hands sanitizer. Daily temperature checks are expected.
If the number of Carleton students who return exceeds housing capacity, the plan is for campus housing to be prioritized for first-year students and those who were approved to remain on campus this summer.
Visitors are expected to be drastically reduced and will not be permitted in campus residences.
Students living in residence halls will have fixed furniture arrangements to allow for social distancing. Those in townhomes and interest houses are considered family units who will all quarantine if one house member is exposed to COVID-19.
In a move intended to allow as many students to return to Northfield as possible, up to 100 Carleton students could be assigned to live in rooms reserved at three Northfield hotels: Fairfield Inn & Suites, Archer House River Inn and AmericInn. Resident assistants will be at each of the locations.
Carleton’s dining halls will shift to an all-day service model. The college’s Dining Services Department is deploying an ordering app for those who feel more comfortable using a to-go format. Other eating restrictions include physically distanced seating arrangements, plexiglass barriers between dining staff and diners, and strict sanitizing for tables, utensils and shared spaces. Diners will be required to wash their hands before entering food service lines.
According to the college, its testing strategy was formed after staff consulted with several health experts and several state epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists.
“Likewise, all on-campus students, faculty and staff will be asked to self-monitor and self-report their symptoms daily in order to ensure swift action if signs of illness arise,” according to the college.
Response to positive tests
Carleton plans to work with the Minnesota Department of Health to conduct contact tracing for close on- and off-campus contacts if someone tests positive for COVID-19. Impacted students will follow isolation and quarantine protocols. If that happens, a designated resident assistant will be assigned, and students will receive meals in their residence, take online classes and have their health and well-being monitored by the Student Health and Counseling staff. Affected faculty and staff are expected to follow quarantine and isolation protocols at home.
Cleaning and sanitizing
Public spaces are expected to be cleaned and disinfected on a daily basis in all buildings. The college plans to flexibly schedule classes to create opportunities for additional sanitation throughout the day, use additional space to allow for social distancing, increase the amount of fresh air that is exchanged in classrooms, take additional steps to manage room air quality, and, weather-permitting, use outdoor learning spaces.