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Josie Plut of Tri-City United/Cleveland dashes for the ball last season. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)


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Gustavus to start with around 1,000 students on campus, safety measures in place

One’s first year at college is generally assured to be memorable. For freshmen students at Gustavus Adolphus College, it undoubtedly will be this year.

About 1,000 of Gustavus’ current 2,300 enrolled students are expected to be on campus to start the 2020-21 school year. The on-campus students include freshmen and a small number of upperclassmen, who are expected to support the first years and help the college run smoothly amid an historic pandemic.

Students were expected to arrive Aug. 28-30, with class — mostly online, even for those living on campus — beginning Sept. 2.

“It has taken us all summer for us really to be ready,” said COVID Response Coordinator Barb Larson Taylor. “To have students here and do what we think is the core part of our mission — teaching students on a residential campus — but doing it in a different way.”

Larson Taylor is normally in charge of coordinating institutional events, like the Nobel Conference, at the college. But with COVID-19 putting an end to many events or making them virtual, and some serious planning needed, her role has shifted.

“The safety measures are clear but yet continue to evolve, so that is one challenge,” she said. “And there is a lot of people on campus, so we have to essentially reimagine every aspect of the college.”

Planning

In a message to Gustavus students, President Rebecca Bergman said, “The calculus of our decision-making has shifted constantly as we track infection rates, receive updated guidance from public health officials, and build out our operational capacity and plans at Gustavus. In light of Minnesota’s recent upswing in positive COVID-19 cases, particularly among 18- to 24-year-olds, and out of an abundance of caution, we made the decision to limit the number of on-campus residents at the beginning of the academic year.

Our faculty has been preparing for online learning over the course of the summer, and I am confident that the quality of our academic offerings will remain at our usual level of excellence.”

Indeed, after shifting to online classes at the end of the 2019-20 school year in the spring, Gustavus leaders have been planning for what to do this fall.

“From a process standpoint, what we first tried to do is imagine the reopening phases, similar to what people see across the state of Minnesota,” Larson Taylor said. “So we developed five phases, red to green, from all the way closed to all the way open. Then it was determining what phase we’ll be opening in, trying to anticipate where we would be.

“We decided we were going to start in phase orange, which is a really restrictive stage. We thought it would be easier to loosen restrictions later than feeling we needed to do more at the end of August.”

Gustavus staff and faculty were separated into 12 actions teams, and those teams were all assigned different areas to work on — athletics, fine arts, theater, etc. This allowed each of the college’s departments and areas of focus to confront the challenges associated with COVID-19 individually, and then come together to determine what was needed to keep students and the larger community safe.

But even with all that planning, the conclusion Gustavus came to in July had to change in August. Originally planning to welcome all students to start the year, the college has determined that only first year, transfer and a small number of returning students would start on campus, at least for the first three weeks.

“I would say between July and now, the biggest shift that happened was just how many students would be on campus,” Larson Taylor said. “Most of the planning we did in July for what we would have to do to be open is still in place.”

New reality

Classes at Gustavus, to begin 2020, will be online, except for the first-year introductory courses. The college will require masks on campus; students will be expected to maintain distances of 6 feet and limit close contact; they’ll be expected to engage in self-screening for symptoms; and they’ll be expected to stay home when sick and limit travel in general.

While President Bergman acknowledged that students have expressed a desire to be back learning on campus, leadership feels they need to be cautious and take at least a few weeks to test the waters. Having a smaller number of students on campus will allow staff to ensure that the precautions in place will be enough to prevent the virus from spreading rapidly.

“We will have cases. We know there are cases. COVID is present in our world,” Larson Taylor said. “We are prepared to manage having cases. I think what all colleges are trying to do is prevent the sustained high level of transmission.”

But while the college is determined to keep the campus and outer community safe, students will still desire some kind of first year experience. So while large events and activities are out of the question, staff and students are trying to come up with ideas for students to get out of their residences, be active and social.

“Our approach is to bring in the students and not have them just stay in their room, coordinating activities that will get them out, but in a safe way,” Larson Taylor said. “Some things are planned for them; some are modeled. And a lot of things are coordinated by students for students, and in that case, they’ll need to put in place a COVID safety plan, so we can make sure it was thought through.”

At St. Olaf College in Northfield, 17 students were recently suspended for participating in a maskless off-campus party, which resulted in 50 students needing to quarantine for two weeks. If students at Gustavus violate policy, they may face similar consequences.

“Students that are in violation of COVID safety measures will go through our regular conduct process, and that conduct process could and does lead up to suspension or even expulsion,” Larson Taylor said. “But we’re trying to catch people doing things right, and not wrong, so we’ll have a group of student employees, and it will be there job to encourage people, have extra masks, remind people. We’re going to try to celebrate the right decisions and take that approach.”

Community impact

When 1,000 new people enter a community in the midst of a pandemic, there is certainly the potential for impact. Gustavus leaders intend to work closely with the city of St. Peter to ensure students are not shirking responsibility and putting the larger community at risk.

“Luckily, we have a really great relationship with the city, the hospital and the Police Department,” said Larson Taylor. “Those conversations have started, and I think we, as a college, want to be partners with all the places in St. Peter, so we’re not putting our business owners and their employees at risk. We are wanting to think with them and partner with them in ways we can do that well together.”

City Administrator Todd Prafke said the city’s relationship with Gustavus has been positive for a good 15 years now, and he believes they’ll continue to work together to mitigate any potential issues.

“We’ve had communication with Gustavus so we understand what they’re doing and how they’re planning to keep everyone safe,” Prafke said. “As students move on campus, I think there will be continued emphasis on wearing those masks and following rules in the community.”

The usual Gus Bus transportation service will not be active at the start of the school year, which might lead to more students walking and biking from campus to various St. Peter locations. Students will be encouraged to follow the rules of the community, the same as they do on campus. And if there are potential problems, Prafke said the Police Department will handle pandemic-related complaints of students the same way they do for anyone else.

“I think, as a community, we all share in some of that responsibility,” Prafke said.

While there are countless unknowns and likely a good deal of work, and potentially stress, ahead for Gustavus leaders, the college is committed to doing what it was created to do.

“COVID takes a toll on people and their wellbeing, so we’re trying to take care of each other,” Larson Taylor said. “But the mission of our institution is to educate students, so we’re excited to have another school year start.”


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Protesters in Le Center, St. Peter rally to 'Save the Post Office'

Nationwide protests to expand funding to the Post Office and reverse controversial changes reached local communities, including Le Center and St. Peter. On Saturday, independent activists, along with Indivisible St.Peter/Greater Mankato, rallied outside their local post offices for #SavethePostOffice Saturday, a national movement supported by MoveOn, the NAACP and other activist organizations.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Amy Pfau (left) and Allison Schmitt (right) held a rally outside the Le Center Post Office in support of postal workers and reversing new postal service policies. The two worried about the effect mail delays would have on ballot access as well as access to social security checks and veteran’s benefits. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

“The Post Office has been under threat from certain parts of our nation for a long time,” said Allison Schmitt, a Le Center resident who participated in a two-women protest outside the Le Center Post Office. “Especially during the pandemic, people in small towns like Le Center have learned how much we rely on the Postal Service, because some other delivery services don’t come out to our areas, and we just wanted to show our support for the Post Office and encourage Congress to fully fund it.”

The protests have emerged in response to reported delays in mail delivery across the country following cost-cutting measures instituted by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Appointed by President Donald Trump in May, DeJoy swiftly carried sweeping changes, including the elimination of staff overtime, decommissioning mail sorting equipment, removing mail boxes, and instructing letter carriers to begin their routes and return on time even if it meant leaving mail behind.

The changes have been rebuked by Democrats and some Republicans, citing the necessity of delivering ballots and medication to communities on time. On Aug. 18, the state of Minnesota joined a coalition of 14 states filing a federal lawsuit against the Postal Service alleging that the new measures would undermine the upcoming election and disproportionately hurt rural communities and communities of color.

The lawsuit file by State Attorney General Keith Ellison claims that recent changes have slowed down USPS sorting capacity in the Twin Cities by approximately 100,000 to 200,000 pieces of mail per hour. The state has also cited incidents of Minnesotans facing delayed delivery of medication, facemasks and absentee ballots ahead of the Aug. 11 primary election. Many of the residents who requested absentee ballots were at higher risk for COVID-19, making it difficult to vote in-person, the state reported.

The changes to the Post Office have come under intense scrutiny for their potential impact on the election. DeJoy’s motivations have been questioned by Democrats due to his history as a major GOP donor and his lack of experience working with the Post Office.

Those concerns escalated after President Trump told a reporter earlier this month that he was blocking a relief package to the Postal Service on the basis that it would allow the agency to support mail-in voting. Trump has criticized mail-in voting for being susceptible to fraud, but election officials have said there is no evidence to support such claims.

Carson Hughes / By CARSON HUGHES carson.hughes@apgsomn.com 

Protesters gathered in St. Peter, Mankato, Le Center and nationwide to protest recent cost-cutting measures to the Postal Service which have slowed down mail deliveries. (Carsin Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

“We’re concerned that ballots are not going to be at that top priority level, which means they may not make it in on time to be counted.” said Kristie Campana, an organizer behind the Indivisible protest at the St. Peter Post Office. “They have the capacity, but we’re very concerned this year that they’re going to have a lot of absentee ballots they need to process and they need to have funding for that.”

In response to criticism and state lawsuits, DeJoy on Thursday that he was suspending several reforms to Post Office procedure to avoid any appearances that they would impact the election. DeJoy said that retail hours would not change, mail processing equipment, mailboxes and mail processing facilities would remain and that overtime would be approved as needed. However, sorting machines, mailboxes and other mail infrastructure, which have already been removed, will not be reinstated. DeJoy has defended these reforms as necessary to keep the agency from losing money. The postmaster general has also said that cutting mail equipment was appropriate due declines in postal service usage.

Over the weekend, DeJoy testified to Congress that ballots would be a top priority in mail delivery and that the Post Office was equipped to handle mail-in ballots. Protesters were skeptical of those assurances and believed additional funding was necessary, not just for elections, but for public health and local business.

“The Post Office serves an absolutely vital role in getting people their social security checks, serving rural areas,” said Amy Pfau, a member of the Le Center protest.

At the St. Peter and Mankato protests, which drew in approximately 50 people each, members of the community spoke personally on how the slow downs had impacted them. Those included business owners, who saw mail delayed so long they had to replace the products they ordered.

“Today we had a speaker that talked about how she’s never had a problem getting her mail, and now she has people waiting two weeks for something that would have been delivered on time,” said Campana. “So even locally, in St. Peter, we’re seeing these slow downs.”

Protesters also said they had heard from postal workers directly on the toll the changes had taken. Yurie Hong, a member of the Indivisible activist group, said she had talked with postal workers that were finding to more difficult to sort through the mail on time because of the changes. Sometimes important packages, including live animals, could not be delivered on time.

“Picking up those crates where you’re supposed to know there are live animals in there and hearing no sounds and no movement, it’s emotionally difficult knowing you’re carrying, delivering packages of dead animals,” said Hong. “So there’s another emotional toll to that, I think.”

To address concerns related to the Post Office, the United States Senate held a hearing on Friday receiving testimony from DeJoy. On Saturday, the House convened to pass a bill allocating $25 billion to the Postal Service and suspending recent changes. House Democrats and more than two dozen House Republicans supported the bill, but the White House and Senate majority has been critical of the bill for not providing wider coronavirus relief to small businesses.

Earlier in the week, the president and Senate leadership had thrown support behind a proposal to allocate $10 billion to the Postal Service as part of a larger coronavirus relief package. The $25 billion in the House bill was originally part of a $3 trillion COVID relief bill that failed to net support from the Senate.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, this is for everybody,” said Hong.


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Council sets deadline for KingPins site cleanup

After City Council action Aug. 24, the site of the burned down KingPins bowling alley might be cleaned up before the end of autumn.

The council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution declaring the site — at 1671 S. Third St. on the south end of town — a public nuisance and give 30 days to property owner Eyebowl, LLC, to clean up the site. That 30-day timeline does not start until the order is approved in Nicollet County District Court, so the deadline will likely fall in the first or second week of October, according to City Administrator Todd Prafke.

If the owner did not provide for demolition and removal in time, the city would undertake those tasks and place an assessment against the property to recoup the costs incurred via property taxes. Or, instead of being paid back, the city could take over the property entirely.

The city does not have any promises from the property owner, but the city is hopeful the matter will be taken care of before the city needs to take action.

“The city attorney (James Brandt) has had contact with the building owners attorney and with the mortgage holder, as well, so I believe the owner’s attorney is waiting for the action of the court related to the prosecution tied to this,” Prafke said. “We believe everyone will be very cooperative.”

Background

The Feb. 16 morning fire burned down the bowling alley almost entirely, but no injuries were reported and no damage was done to adjacent properties. A mess of ash and debris remains at the site, which is highly visible from Hwy. 99 coming into St. Peter and also from Hwy. 169. After giving time for a thorough investigation and then more time for owners to take care of the mess on their own, the city is pushing for a resolution. Staff still had to provide proper warning, though.

In a release the day of the fire, St. Peter Fire Department Chief Matt Ulman said the cause of the fire was being investigated and it may take a few weeks before anything is known. Four months later, the investigation wrapped up and charges were filed against Dwight Lee Selders, 47, a co-owner of the business. He was charged with first- and second-degree arson, both felonies.

Selders made his first appearance in court virtually on July 28. He is next scheduled for an omnibus hearing Sept. 22.

According to the complaint, the first officer on scene reported seeing the south half of the building engulfed in flames. That officer noticed the fire moving north at a “very rapid pace.” The St. Peter fire chief reported the fire was “very large, blowing out fire approximately 30 feet into the air.” The chief reported the roof collapsed from the south and the entire roof subsequently collapsed in just 30 minutes.

According to the complaint, surveillance video shows Selders, who co-owned the business, walking out and locking up the night of Feb. 15. The next morning, Feb. 16, at approximately 7:24 a.m., according to the complaint, Selders was reportedly seen on surveillance video unlocking and entering the facility. He was reportedly the only person seen exiting or entering the building between those periods.

Selders was allegedly seen on camera walking to the back, behind the pin-setting machines, and an investigator later determined, according to the complaint, that the fire origin was behind one of the pin-setting machines, and the first material ignited was vapors from an ignitable liquid, and that an open fire instrument was used. The investigator determined the cause to be incendiary material.

According to the complaint and to property records, Selders and Jessica Ann Tonsfeldt purchased the property in 2014. Tonsfeldt has not been charged in relation to the fire. The two were reportedly a couple when they started the business together but had split in October 2019, and Tonsfeldt had resigned her position four days before the fire occurred.

According to property records, the former KingPins building was first constructed in 1962 and had undergone a number of renovations since. It had served as a bowling alley for nearly 60 years, previously named Bowlero Lanes and Sioux Trail Lanes.


(Philip Weyhe/St. Peter Herald)