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GALLERY: 'It was just incredible' — Saints Strong reverse parades are massive hits

If there were any questions whether St. Peter elementary students and their teachers were missing each other, those questions were answered May 7.

North Elementary, South Elementary, and the Early Childhood Center hosted the first-ever St. Peter Public Schools Saints Strong reverse parades, with staff at all three buildings on hand to greet students and their families. The event was an unqualified success, as hundreds of vehicles — filled with students, families and community members — lined up the roads to drive by each building and greet teachers and administrators.

The high rate of participation saw some vehicles lined up for a good hour, as they patiently waited their turn to show support for their schools. At each school building, there seemed to be no end in sight.

“Oh my goodness, we had a wonderful turnout,” South Elementary Principal Doreen Oelke said. “We didn’t think to count cars, but we just really wanted to have an event that was good for everyone’s soul … The kids were excited to see the teachers, and the teachers are in this profession to see these kids. So to go months without seeing the kids, this was meant to be a mood booster.”’

Community members said the goal was achieved.

On Facebook, Terri Stratton-Hickey commented, “What a heartfelt moment for all of us! I loved it!! Helped us feel connected.”

And Savannah Peters wrote, “Thanks so much for doing this! My first grader (and preschooler who knows many of the teachers and staff) loved seeing everyone. I made it to the last person in line before I cried like a baby. So bittersweet. Thanks again to all of you who put this together!”

Teachers loved the experience, too.

It was great seeing all the kids smiling,” Mary Ceplecha said. “Myself, as a para, and all the rest of the teachers really enjoyed doing this little parade.”

Oelke joked that it was the first time her school was able to avoid a traffic jam.

“We’re landlocked over here at South, and traffic is always crazy around our school at the beginning and end of the days,” she said. “In this case we were able to loop people down the wrong way on our driveway and out onto Washington. We were able to direct traffic smoothly for the first time ever here.”

Congestion or not, the event seem to be filled with nothing but joy at all three schools.

“You could just see on the kids’ faces and the teachers’ faces that they just missed each other,” Oelke said. “There were tears; there was laughter; it was just incredible.”

She added, “For me, it will go down as one of most memorable moments. It’s kind of that little bit of hope, and that’s what we were hoping to do.”

The coronavirus pandemic led to the closure of schools statewide in Minnesota (and many other places), as distance learning has been implemented, keeping students at home. While virtual tools have been used to connect students, teachers and administrators, the level of separation is abnormal and has been a strain for many.

Everyone has needed to be adaptable and selfless in dealing with the changes.

“I started teaching in 1985. This is my sixth year at South,” said Oelke. “I think it’s that perfect example of ‘Persepctive is everything.’ We used to think consecutive snow days are troublesome, and now we think, ‘Oh, bring that on.’ Did I ever see anything like this coming? No. But I’m incredibly proud of staff, who have rolled up their sleeves. We had never used SeeSaw and we’re using that; the district came up with devices to share; our students who needed internet, we got hotspots to them. Our cultural liaisons made sure all families could keep up, no matter whether they speak English.”

The reverse parades were just another example of the district community making the best of a tough situation.

“I’m so proud to be part of a district that is taking care of kids,” Oelke said.

River's Edge looks to Paycheck Protection Program to keep staff on

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the new circumstances it has created, River’s Edge Hospital in St. Peter has remained committed to keeping fully staffed. That proposition has only become more difficult as elective surgeries were temporarily barred across Minnesota and as many felt discouraged about visiting the hospital for non-COVID-related issues.

So, even as elective surgeries return, bringing back a key revenue source for River’s Edge, the hospital has its eye on the Paycheck Protection Program, which will help compensate staff and keep them working, even as the hospital deals with an unexpected drop in profits.

“We have worked very, very hard to not furlough staff and keep them occupied here,” River’s Edge Chief Financial Officer Lori Zook told the St. Peter City Council May 4. “That has been difficult when we have not been able to do orthopedic surgery. This money will allow us to continue being staffed, as people decide when we’re able to get started on services again.”

It was the next day that Gov. Tim Walz reopened elective surgeries, which is key to River’s Edge, as it utilized a partnership with Orthopedic Fracture Clinic, out of Mankato, to house the surgeries and recoveries at River’s Edge. The OrthoEdge program has been a key program in the hospital’s upswing over the last several years.

But even with the program returning, the hospital has losses to catch up on, and it doesn’t anticipate immediately returning to profit, as it continues to prepare for a possible influx of COVID-19 cases.

“There is a 30-to-60-day lag for most claims for medical services,” Zook said. “That means that if we do surgery today, we don’t get cash for one-to-two months. We still have to provide the services and pay the staff, so it is important that the loss of revenue not impact the staff. This money will help make up for the losses of revenue we had in March and April, as the other funds received were for COVID-19-related expenses only.”

River’s Edge CEO Joe Stratton added, “Right on with Lori’s comment in that we’re looking at a notable ramp up we must go through over the next two months to get back 100% … besides the (Accounts Receivable) challenges and cash drop in the meantime.”

Hospital leadership also plans to ease back into surgeries and won’t return to its normal level for some time.

“Our plan is to not resume surgeries at the level we were doing prior to the executive order to delay surgeries,” Chief Experience Officer Stephanie Holden said. “This gradual increase in the number of procedures done per week will help us preserve personal protective equipment and maintain bed availability for medical patients. As Lori (Zook) stated, it will take some time to catch up on the revenue side once we resume elective procedures.”

The City Council, on May 4, voted unanimously to allow the hospital to pursue the PPP dollars — $1.58 million in federal funding that will allow the hospital to keep staff on and pay them. The federal Small Business Administration will forgive the loan if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.

River’s Edge is a city-owned hospital, so it’s technically the city that is applying for the loan. Hospital leaders indicated they believe the full loan will be forgiven, as the hospital will be able to meet the requirements of keeping fully staffed and using at least 75% of the dollars toward the payroll.

The River’s Edge Hospital Commission was scheduled to provide its own approval at a meeting May 13, after the publication deadline for this article. A resolution to support the application for PPP was expected to be approved; the application would then be sent to the Small Business Administration for consideration.

Employees with a body temperature reading of 99 degrees or more are moved to another station to have their temperatrue read with a no-contact handheld thermometer. If they still read for a fever after five tests they are not allowed inside the main facility.

St. Peter left fielder Ethan Volk throws out a Paynesville runner attempting to score. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

Confirmed COVID-19 cases spike in south central Minnesota as testing increases

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continued its unbearable ascent Wednesday, as the Health Department reported 638 deaths, 24 more than Tuesday, while the total number of cases since the pandemic began approached 13,000.

Officials for the first time also began noting probable COVID-19 deaths, where the disease was listed as the cause of death but a positive test wasn’t documented. The department listed nine probable deaths. Minnesotans currently hospitalized (494) and needing intensive care (199) remained roughly stable from the prior day.

The case count is now growing more rapidly in south central Minnesota.

The number of confirmed cases in Rice County more than quadrupled over the span of a week; the county now has 153 confirmed cases and two deaths. Steele County is next with 77 confirmed and no deaths, and Blue Earth County has 69 confirmed and zero deaths. Le Sueur County has 31 confirmed cases and one death; Nicollet County 23 confirmed and two deaths; Waseca County 18 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 27 confirmed; Brown County 10 confirmed and one death; and Sibley County four confirmed and no deaths.

Public Health officials in Rice County noted that at least part of the recent spike in cases in the area can be attributed to a higher rate of testing. Area businesses who are screening employees each time they arrive for work is also contributing to the higher number of confirmed cases, she said.

In Steele County, a business had a cluster of employees test positive for COVID-19, according to a release from Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron.

The latest numbers came as Gov. Tim Walz prepared to address Minnesota at 6 p.m. on whether he’ll extend his “peacetime emergency” order that gives him powers to respond to the pandemic without legislative approval. The speech took place after the publishing deadline for the May 14 St. Peter Herald. Go to www.stpeterherald.com for the latest information.

The DFL governor was expected to extend his peacetime state of emergency declaration, which was set to expire May 13. He was also expected to discuss the future of his stay-at-home order, which expires Monday, May 18. He’s under increasing political pressure to loosen the stay-at-home restrictions, and some business owners are threatening defiance if they remain in place.

Stay-home, emergency declaration decisions loom

Besides the peacetime emergency order, the governor must decide this week whether his stay-at-home order should be extended in some form beyond Monday or allowed to expire.

Minnesotans are increasingly disregarding the stay-home order, traffic and cellphone data show, and Walz is facing increased criticism of the order from people who say the restrictions have fallen unevenly on businesses.

However, case counts and deaths continue to increase in Minnesota. And Walz predicted many customers aren’t yet ready to dine out or gather where there are crowds.

Republicans in the Minnesota House have vowed to withhold votes on a more than $2 billion public works spending bill unless Walz drops the order when it expires Wednesday. If Walz were to add even more time after the session adjourns Monday, he’d be required to call lawmakers into a special session.

On Tuesday, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she expects Walz to extend the peacetime emergency order, noting that cases continue to grow in Minnesota and there are problems in nursing homes and meatpacking plants that still need attention.

‘Battle plan’ could take weeks to fully kick in

Long-term care residents account for more than 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths to date, but the “battle plan” to safeguard the Minnesotans living in those facilities could take weeks to implement statewide, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Tuesday.

The goal, she said, is to move quickly and despite the state “making good progress” but “it’s going to take some period of days and even weeks before it’s fully implemented statewide,” she told reporters.

The plan includes expanded testing, more personal protective gear for health workers in those congregate care sites, and a promise to maintain “adequate” staffing when workers fall ill. Gov. Tim Walz unveiled it last week.

Malcolm said she’s received calls and emails from long-term care workers and family members of people in those facilities “who are concerned and disappointed that the plan isn’t fully in place” in the facility where they work or have loved ones.

Implementing Walz’s “battle plan,” however, will take time, said Tuesday. “It’s unfortunately not something that we can flip a switch and have the plan be fully implemented everywhere in the state immediately, but it is a high priority.”