If one’s senior year of high school represents the end of a life chapter, then this year’s seniors might be wondering if their author got distracted before finishing. Perhaps the author’s attention was stolen by the pandemic, too.
Seniors across the state of Minnesota (and in many other places) had their time in a high school cut short in March, and they recently learned they won’t be returning. That means the last two months or so of time spent with classmates, friends and teachers is out the window. It means no senior spring sports or activities. It might mean no in-person graduation ceremony, no prom.
It means that closure on a crucial period of growth will be harder to come by.
“I think it’s really difficult to comprehend, because we’ve spent so long at school together and we’re just going to graduate,” St. Peter High School senior Kayla Soderlund said. “It’s really strange to not have that normal graduation.”
Her twin sister, Emma, also a senior at SPHS, added, “I think not being able to see our friends or our peers is the most difficult.”
The Soderlund sisters’ mother, Emily Soderlund, is one of many parents, guardians and community members trying to do something, anything to make the end of this chapter a little more joyous, a little more memorable for the 2020 class.
After starting a Facebook page with the help of fellow senior parent Crystal Winterfeldt, Emily Soderlund has led an effort to create visible support for this year’s St. Peter seniors: yard signs with senior faces, window displays with positive messages, perhaps a parade and even fireworks to come.
“I remember my senior year, and I’m a graduate of St. Peter, too, and we all planned senior skip day, and Mr. Hughes chased us down at 7 Mile Park and busted us,” Emily said. “The kids should be worried about getting caught on senior skip day or planning their final sports season together. It’s a huge part of these kids’ lives. It’s a chapter closing, and they’re not going to get that final chapter.”
She added, “I believe it’s totally necessary to close the schools. As parents, I know a lot of us feel helpless, because we have no control over the situation. That’s one of the reasons I started this campaign — to remind our kids that they are loved and supported. So when they think of COVID-19, they can think ‘That was a screwed up year, but look at what our community did for us.’”
Kayla’s and Emma’s circumstances reflect those of many of their classmates.
Kayla has been doing gymnastics in Mankato since she was 7 years old. As the pandemic took hold, she was forced to miss the final divisional meet of her career, cutting short her youth sporting career unexpectedly. Emma, meanwhile, was excited for her final season of adapted bowling, but lost that opportunity.
The two are trying to stay positive, though.
“Learning how to do it all differently has been an adjustment, but we’re trying to make the most of it, and we’re hoping for the best, I guess,” Kayla said.
They can’t speak for their entire class, but they think their peers are having similar feelings.
“I think it depends on the person, but for the most part, I think everyone is feeling the same,” Kayla said. “Not being able to see everybody. It’s a different feeling as we approach the end of the year.”
Regardless of how well her daughters were taking to the change, Emily was hurting for them, concerned that they were missing out on important moments and memories. She was texting with Winterfeldt when the ideas started flowing.
“I felt like the writing was on the wall when the governor said ‘Prepare for distance learning.’” Emily said. “We were talking, and (Winterfeldt) was the first one to paint ‘Class of 2020 Strong’ in her window. From there, I just started a group on Facebook, and I threw it out there, thinking it would just be some senior parents, and the group kind of blew up. There is almost 500 people on there now. It’s people in our community who just feel devastated for what they’re going through.”
The group on Facebook is called SPHS Class of 2020 — St. Peter Community Support, and it’s 503 members are constantly looking for ways to honor this year’s class. Some members share stories of what other communities are doing for their seniors; some share pictures of their yard sign or window displays; some just send messages of support.
“It kind of reminds me of the tornado,” Emily said of the group and the community banding together. “I was in seventh grade. I remember walking around town with tarps on people’s homes, and so many of them said ‘Thank you’ on them, because people were going around town, helping with food and water and necessities needed. I feel like we did it then and we can do it again, even if it’s not in person.”
For residents and businesses who want to show support to the class, the easiest way to do so might be some window paint, writing a message like “Saints Strong 2020” on home or vehicle windows. Another option is to contact one of the local yard sign companies or creators, which have created templates to show support; among them are Meyer Signworks, Saint Peter Promotional and Tressa Wills Bushaw. Some parents, like Emily, even pulled out some blue and white holiday lights to show some extra night-time support for the 2020 class.
“I think the support we’re getting from the community is really amazing,” Kayla said. “To see our town come together to support the class of 2020 is really cool.”
Emma added, “It’s really cool. We appreciate it.”
That’s all Emily is hoping for. Whether for her own daughters or any of the class of 2020 SPHS students, she just wants the kids to know that the community sees them and loves them and is proud of them.
“I know that the St. Peter community is so tight knit,” Emily said, “and having seen what this community has done in the past, I just know these kids will be able to walk around and see how supported they are and know they are not lost in the chaos of COVID-19.”
Judging by the reaction so far, the city of St. Peter’s COVID-19 Micro Loan Program was sorely needed.
In just a few weeks, the city reported distribution of over $350,000 in emergency micro loans to 40 separate businesses. And now, with more businesses expressing interest in securing the 0% interest, $10,000 maximum loans, the city is expanding the program.
The St. Peter City Council voted unanimously to approve the an expansion of the micro loan program to include birthing centers and medical offices among the eligible businesses. The council vote came after the Economic Development Authority made the recommendation at its April 23 meeting.
Community Development Director Russ Wille noted to the EDA that River Valley Birth Center had requested the expansion, as its business revenues had been curtailed, with a severe cut to pre-birth activities. Wille further noted that he had hurt from at least one dentist in town that the loan could be useful to their business as well.
The EDA agreed that it was right to extend the program.
“I would agree that the purpose of the EDA is to not only bring in new business, but to support existing businesses,” authority member James Dunn said. “The birthing center is an amenity that St. Peter offers that other communities don’t. I would be open to expanding the list, if it means keeping businesses afloat in the community.”
Among the list of 40 businesses that have already utilized the program are restaurants, bars, retail shops, garden centers, professional service providers, fitness centers and more. A majority of the loans are for the full $10,000 maximum amount, with just a few under $5,000.
Under the developed guidelines, St. Peter businesses are eligible for loans of up to $10,000 offered at 0% interest. Repayment of the loans would be deferred for approximately 12 months and begin in June 2021. When repayment begins, the note would be repaid at a rate of $100 per month, regardless of the loan amount.
To receive the maximum loan of $10,000, the business needs to demonstrate that they have lease, rent or mortgage expenses and monthly utility charges that total at least $2,500 per month. If the eligible expenses do not total at least that amount, the business is eligible for less than the maximum of $10,000.
The program mirrors a similar one from 2009, when the city offered the Construction Mitigation Micro Loan Program, while Hwy. 169 was closed for reconstruction. In a memo to the current EDA and City Council, city staff noted, “In 2009, businesses reported that the assistance was very helpful and allowed them to stay current on their lease and utility payment obligations, which allowed them to keep their doors open to the limited business that was available.”
Diamond Dust Bakery is a recipient through the 2020 program, and owner Cheri Brown said it’s had a similar impact as the 2009 loans did for those businesses.
“This loan has been a blessing, because I don’t know how I would’ve continued if I hadn’t had the money as soon as I got it,” she said. “The city, within two days, was there, and that’s the reason my doors are open right now.”
Brown initially closed her business after the governor’s order to shut down dine-in services, but she reopened April 28 with a new plan. Now open Tuesday-Friday 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., she and her team offer curbside and takeout services, shuffling customers quickly in and out of the bakery. What was once a business geared toward customers coming in for a coffee and a pastry is now a business for large to-go orders.
“People aren’t coming in for a sandwich and a cookie; they’re coming in for six sandwiches and six cookies,” Brown said. “The coffee sales and pastry sales are not happening, so we kind of switched things around. We’re doing take-and-bake meals. We’re selling cookies, and people are buying those by the dozen and bringing them home.”
Making ends meet
Everything is temporary right now, as business owners endure a storm that doesn’t have any obvious expiration date. What the micro loan did for a business owner, like Brown, is supplement expenses as the service strategy shifts. She was able to close her doors for a few weeks before reopening with the new plan.
“For me, in the food business, when you place an order with a distributor, you have two weeks to pay for it,” she said. “There is no way I could’ve shut my doors and prepared for this without being able to keep up with those kinds of things. And just thinking about my business and all the money I’ve had to invest just to make these changes — these things weren’t in my budget two months ago.”
Brown has also applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan to supplement the costs of keeping employees on while revenues are low, but she hasn’t heard back yet. She is also in contact with the Small Business Administration to find extra resources, but that process is also slower.
The city’s ability to immediately respond and disperse the funds were crucial to her getting open again.
The future will still come, and Brown admits she has concerns about outstanding debts. In just its fourth year, Diamond Dust is already paying off major loans from the start. But while $10,000 is an addition to the debt, Brown says it’s manageable, and with 0% interest and easy payback, she doesn’t expect it to hamper her in the future.
In regards to the pandemic as a whole, Brown, like many, is feeling mixed emotions, but ultimately, she’s glad precautions are being taken, and she’s ready for a steady move toward normalcy.
“I feel different every single day,” she said. “But I think the way they’re handling it, it’s good. I think some people are getting almost complacent. Thank goodness we’ve been blessed in this area. I think a slow open will be good.”
Nicollet County will give businesses a bit of a break this year, as they deal with unprecedented obstacles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Board of Commissioners voted at its April 28 meeting to allow property tax late payment penalties to be waived for owners of businesses that had to shut down, due to executive orders from the governor in March and April. The penalty waiver lasts from property tax payment deadline of May 15 through July 15. After that time, the business owners would be subject to the usual penalties, unless further action is taken by the county.
The late payment penalty waiver will not apply to individual property owners in Nicollet County. The commissioners debated whether they should extend the benefit to all property taxpayers, but the group ultimately decided that the cutoff should be impacted business owners.
“There are businesses out there that have been shut down and are struggling,” Commissioner Marie Dranttel. “They didn’t have time to plan for this. Most of them are small. This is buying them some time. They have been shut down; they have no income streams. If this buys them some time, then so be it.”
The waiver is not available to any property taxpayers that utilize escrow to pay their property taxes. Nicollet County Administrator Ryan Krosch said he was advised that most businesses don’t utilize escrow, anyway.
County staff had offered another option to the board. which would have extended the benefit to all non-escrow property taxpayers.
The option suggested that the penalties be cut down significantly to 1% for anyone who paid from May 16 to June 30; 2% to anyone who paid from July 1 to July 31; and regular penalties for those who paid August or later.
“We came up with the 1 and 2 percent, because we wanted to make the penalty as small as possible while still giving them a reason to pay their taxes,” said Property Services Manager Jaci Kopet.
The board, though, was not convinced that this was necessary, and commissioners were concerned about how it might impact funding for school districts, cities, townships and more. The group decided to apply the regular late payment penalties for non-business property taxpayers, noting that individual residents can still file for a hardship, if they need to delay payments. The county policy does not include financial concerns under hardship, but the board agreed it could reconsider the policy at a future date, if necessary.
Commissioner Jack Kolars was the only board member not to vote in favor of making the waiver available for business owning taxpayers; he abstained. During the meeting, he suggested it might be best to move ahead with no waivers, whatsoever.
“If you look at the 87 counties, there will be 87 different ideas out there,” he said. “What we decide today, I think, is going to set precedent for what could be even more dire economic times for when we get to second half payments in November. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m being callous on this difficult economic decision, but I would ask that we go ahead without the benefits.”
The rest of the board, though, felt strongly that small businesses most impacted by the shutdown may need a bit of a relief and some extra time to make payments.