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U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., addresses a crowd at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 in Rochester, Minn. Hagedorn, who just began his second term, has pledged to continue fighting for conservative ideals. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

St. Peter elementary, Cleveland students return to full-time in-person learning

St. Peter and Cleveland public schools are beginning in-person and hybrid learning this month after a stretch of distance-only learning before winter break, but the COVID-19 response of the community will determine if students can stay in school.

So far, it’s full steam ahead as elementary students returned to full-time in-person learning in St. Peter Jan. 18 (middle and high school students are still in hybrid mode), and all students started in-person learning in Cleveland Jan. 25.

North fourth-grade teacher Ryan Hassing addresses his full classroom at the start of the school day on Jan. 19th. It was the first day for full-time in-person learning in the 2020-21 school year for K-4 students at St. Peter Public Schools. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Hildebrandt)

“With only 5 days under our belt, things are going well,” South Elementary Principal Doreen Oelke said. “The students and staff were all very excited to be together, and spirits are high. We are doing our best to help our students acclimate to school and create a culture of learning within our classrooms.

The teachers have had a chance to bond with two groups of students (A day and B day), and now the challenge is to take these two groups and create one unified classroom. Teachers are assessing where our students are at and putting plans together to address their needs.”

“I think things are going well,” North Elementary Principal Darin Doherty said. “I think the added preparation time that was required by the state when we shift gears in the learning format helped us to make those adjustments and pivot as needed. The fact we had time in the hybrid mode this year really helped us to establish a routine.”

Mrs. Minks’ first-grade students were all smiles at the start of their first day back in hybrid learning Jan. 6. They’ve since returned to full-time in-person learning, meaning classes are now more full. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Hildebrandt)

Carri Borchert, a first-grade teacher at South Elementary, said it’s been a bit of a transition to move from 11 students to 22 in the classroom, but overall, it’s been “smooth.”

“They can be 3 feet apart now, but to have 22 desks 3 feet apart takes pretty much all of the classroom,” Borchert said. “There isn’t enough room for kids to spread out on the carpet for story time, for example. That’s important. The younger they are, the more space they actually need.”

Teachers have to counteract some of those limitations with other strategies.

“One thing is we try to incorporate some movement breaks that include learning, so we stand up behind our desks and do a little dance to get the wiggles out, so that they can get back to it,” Borchert said. “Another thing is that we have a lot of visuals that we never had before; even just lining up in a classroom, we have lots of tape marks or Velcro spots to help them with the distancing.”

Fourth-grade North Elementary teacher Jennifer Friedrich said the in-person learning environment makes a big difference for many students.

Samantha Stoelk’s fourth-grade class at North Elementary began the first day of in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan. 19 with reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s the first time elementary students are back to full-time in-person since the fall. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Hildebrandt)

“It’s a lot to ask for elementary students to keep up with everything at home,” she said. “In person, they can interact with their peers and be social, and they’re able to talk about their learning and improve their understanding; that’s what we like to gear the older elementary grades toward.”

She added, “The social interactions, kids we’re missing out on that, and you can really see how they just enjoy each other’s company right now.”

Doherty said that the in-person learning experience is crucial, especially for young students.

“There are certainly a number of kids that thrived in the distance mode, but there were also kids that faltered a bit,” he said, “because there were already some cracks in their foundational education and that kind of compounded the challenges.”

Keeping in-person

As Minnesota sees a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in bars, restaurants, and gyms, Education Minnesota urges community members to continue following health and safety guidelines. With community spread in any given Minnesota county impacting the learning model schools can safely implement during the pandemic, educators’ unions want to see a decline in COVID-19 cases, so students can safely return to or stay in the classroom.

The schools are trying to do their part to make the experience safe.

South Elementary students returned to the building Jan. 6 for the first time in nearly two months to begin hybrid learning. Shown here, Mrs. Wenner helps some of her kindergarten students prepare for the day after they arrived for classes. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Hildebrandt)

“Our students and staff have done a great job incorporating our safety measures into our day,” South’s Oelke said. “We are committed to doing whatever we need to do to keep our students, staff and community safe. Last summer we all questioned how well a 5 year old would keep a mask on. It quickly became apparent to us that students could do it. Like so many things, it required us to explain why we were doing it, model it for them, and support them until it became a habit for them.”

Of course, not everyone has the same level of comfortability in uncertain times. Local school districts report that they’ve made decisions on a case by case basis to accommodate teachers that feel unsafe returning to school.

At Cleveland, Superintendent Brian Philips said that faculty requests to teach from home have been granted when they meet the Minnesota Department of Health’s recommendations.

“The question we had to answer is could you do your job from home,” said Phillips. “For example, it would be difficult to clean the building or drive kids around if you stayed at home, so some of those we had to deny.”

Cleveland Principal Scott Lusk said the district was also responding to staff mental health concerns through offering after school sessions with counselors and hiring an elementary and after-school counselor.

Principal Scott Lusk helps a student find her classroom. (Photo courtesy of Cleveland Public School)

Another factor that plays a role in keeping students in schools is the health of staff members. Finding substitute teachers to fill in for staff members who are out sick, either because of COVID-19 or another reason, has been a struggle for some districts during the pandemic. St. Peter actually increase pay rates for substitutes to help increase its pool, and in November, as cases spiked locally, Cleveland had to work around teachers in isolation.

“We had zero cases in our building, and one day it spiraled out of control,” said Cleveland’s Lusk. “Within two weeks, I think, we were shut down and went to distance learning. We had teachers being exposed; we had teachers that had it … So we created online spaces and online accounts on our Google, so they could share that out.”

But while the difficulties remain present, school leaders are determined to give students the full learning experience, if at all possible.

“Schools are a social environment where students learn how to collaborate, create, communicate and problem solve with one another,” Oelke said. “In order to build these skills, they must be given the opportunity to interact with others.”

Winterfest largely canceled, but medallion hunt, polar plunge still on

We’ve almost marked a year since the COVID-19 pandemic started wreaking havoc and canceling community events, one at a time. But there is one left that had yet to be affected in St. Peter: Winterfest.

The annual celebration generally brings the community together for a number of scheduled events — some hosted by the St. Peter Area Chamber of Commerce and others by outside businesses and organizations. It was always kicks off on the last Friday of January with an opening ceremony, including a bonfire and the reading of the first Medallion Hunt clue. It won’t happen that way in 2021.

As the state of Minnesota (and the world at large) continues to grapple with the pandemic, guidelines and even laws prohibit the gathering of too many people in a single place. While it’s possible for the Chamber to hold a limited outdoor event under current state rules, it would certainly go against the spirit of preventing the disease from spreading, as we (hopefully) enter the final stages.

“We’re heartbroken,” said Chamber Executive Director Ed Lee. “One of my favorite things is getting that bonfire going in Levee Park, right outside the Chamber. We sort of unlock the door and give the public the run of the place. There has always been s’mores and a mini medallion hunt and prizes, but we just can’t do it safely. We thought about a single file bonfire, where you wait in line to make your s’mores, and then go on your own way, but we just couldn’t find a way to make it work. We want to respect the state rules and what they’re doing to stop the spread.”

Other 2020 events that won’t take place in 2021 include an annual pinewood derby from the local Cub Scout Pack 58, a Snow Day at Veterans Park, a waffle breakfast from Lion’s Club, a Super Bowl viewing party at Patrick’s, Winter Walk at River’s Edge, a chili feed at the American Legion, a poker walk at Red Men Club, and the ever popular WinterSlam Demolition Derby. None of those events would fit in with current state rules and regulations.

However, two major features of Winterfest will go on, albeit with some changes: the annual Medallion Hunt and Polar Plunge.

The 2021 Winterfest Medallion is transparent, which might make it more difficult to find. (Photo courtesy of Ed Lee)

For the 2021 Medallion Hunt, a clue will be revealed each day at 5:01 p.m. at the St. Peter Herald and Chamber websites, starting Friday, until the medallion is found. The finder gets $1,000 in Chamber bucks.

“We are going to release the clues at 5:01 p.m., instead of 6:01 p.m.,” Lee said of the hunt. “That’s just a little lighter around that time. We sure hope it doesn’t interfere with dinners and other stuff at that time.”

He added, “The medallion itself seems to change every year. The 2021 medallion is as clear as an ice cube melting on a sidewalk in May; it’s transparent.

That favors the rapscallion. Last year, the medallion had a black background, and typically that would stand out against the white snow.”

The St. Peter Polar Plunge, meanwhile, has been pushed back to March 13. It’s usually part of the Winterfest celebration, but to ensure more time for preparation and safety, Special Olympics Minnesota has pushed the plunges back across the state. The Nicollet County Sheriff’s Office leads organization of the local plunge, and Sheriff Dave Lange talked about how it will look different this year.

“We’ll have time changes this year, where only 50 will show up at maybe 11 a.m. and another 50 at 11:30,” Lange said. “They’re encouraging no spectators and we won’t have warmer tubs. They will also be offering a virtual plunge people can participate in. Otherwise, it’s business as usual this year.”

Lange said the difficulties in arranging the plunge this year aren’t enough to offset the benefits.

“We’ve always supported it, because it’s a good cause in Special Olympics Minnesota, and it’s certainly a huge fundraiser for them,” he said. “If we can put it on in a safe manner for everyone, I think it’s worth it.”

Local law enforcement: Time to get 'back to basics' on road safety
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After a difficult year that saw a spike in traffic deaths related to unsafe driving, local law enforcement officials are urging drivers to recommit to driving safely in 2021.

The rising deaths were especially discouraging, as overall traffic fell due to COVID-19. Fatality numbers haven’t been logged at a county level, but Nicollet County Sheriff David Lange said he’s noticed officers stopping more vehicles driving at speeds over 100 miles per hour.

“I think, overall, driving conduct has gone south on us,” said Lange. “There’s a lot less traffic out there, but we’re certainly seeing higher speeds and inattentive type driving behaviors, so I think that’s a contributing cause to those numbers increasing.”

Nicollet County isn’t alone in this. Speed-related fatalities, as well as speeding citations, have risen all across the region. According to the Office of Traffic Safety, the number of speeding tickets issued to those going over 100 mph essentially doubled from 2019 to 2020.

Speed was a factor in 118 traffic fatalities this year, compared to 72 last year, surpassing impairment as the most common factor involved with fatal collisions. Failure to wear a seat belt took a big jump as well, rising from 73 associated fatalities in 2019 to 102 in 2020.

While it will be months before the state releases official, final figures as part of its annual Crash Facts Report, preliminary figures released Jan. 4 painted a dire picture. In total, 394 people lost their lives on Minnesota roadways last year, up 30 from 2019.

Though the pandemic has kept more people off the road, law enforcement theorize that sparse roadways led drivers to engage in more heedless behavior.

“The theory there is, because there were less drivers on highways, those increases in speeds led to an increase in crashes,” said St. Peter Police Chief Matthew Peters.

St. Peter did see an increase in fatalities last year on account of a single pedestrian death. But for the most part, increasing speeds haven’t been as much of a concern inside town. Peters said that most of these speed-related deaths were taking place on highways and in the metro area.

It was a similar case in Le Center, where Police Chief Robert Pfarr said he hadn’t dealt with any increased speeds or traffic. Speed is typically only a concern for the community when drivers pass through on Hwy. 99.

”Our crashes kind of remained the same,” said Pfarr. “A lot of our accidents are minor fender benders in the parking lots, stuff like that. We didn’t see an increase.”

But outside small towns, police may be looking at upping enforcement to bring down speeds. Lange said the Nicollet County Sheriff’s Department would continue to partner with Blue Earth County as a safe roads grant recipient to increase enforcement on speeding and that speed enforcement would be a statewide priority in 2021.

”One of the best ways to slow down drivers is enforcement,” said Peters. “It seems like more people are concerned with getting a traffic citation for speeding than for getting in a crash. I think you’ll find that from the enforcement standpoint at least, it’s important and it can change driver behavior.”

Buckling up couldn’t have necessarily saved all of the lives last year, but it continues to be the most important safety feature in every vehicle, mainly because it dramatically reduces the chances of being ejected from the vehicle during a crash. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of fatality by 45% and serious injury by 50%. In total, wearing a seat belt has saved more than 300,000 lives from 1960 to 2012, according to the NHTSA.

Distracted driving deaths were also up, rising to 30 statewide from 27 last year, even though 2020 was the first full year that the state’s “Hands Free” law has been in effect, barring motorists from holding a cellphone while driving.

Prior to the change, motorists were only prohibited from texting while driving. However, the challenge of identifying whether someone was texting or using their phone in a different manner limited enforcement.

One modest bright spot was a very modest preliminary decrease in impaired driving-related fatalities. Figures show 109 traffic deaths linked to impaired driving, down from 111 last year, though the decrease in drivers arrested for DWIs fell by a full 19%.

Investigators suspect arson caused the house fire that killed Bruce Alan Traxler, of Le Center, the morning of Jan. 24. Traxler’s body was reportedly found in the home. Police suspected the fire was started by Traxler’s son. (Carson Hughes/southernminn.com)