It goes without saying that students are tired of COVID-19.
They’re tired of masking, tired of not seeing their friends, tired of distance learning and tired of not going places closed due to health and safety guidelines. For many students and parents, the coronavirus just adds another layer to pre-existing stressors and challenges. Whatever the circumstances of each unique household or school, COVID-19’s impact on students’ mental health is something counselors and social workers continue to address.
The mental health crisis in children and young adults isn’t unique to the region. According to a Center for Promise at America’s Promise Alliance, 30% of the 3,300 13- to 19-year-olds surveyed said they have been unhappy or depressed more often than usual, and around that same number worry about having their basic needs met.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also reported an increase in the proportion of children’s mental health-related emergency department visits from April to October. Compared to 2019, the mental health-related visits for children 5 to 11 increased by 24% and visits for children 12 to 17 increased by 31%.
In response to these startling statistics, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) urged the National Institute of Mental Health to prioritize research on the pandemic’s short-term and long-term effects on the mental health of children and young adults. The Dec. 3 letter, which Klobuchar and her colleagues addressed to NIMH Director Joshua Gordon, also asks if the agency will explore increased use of social media as a possible link to mental health concerns.
School Counselor Shane Roessler recognizes COVID-19’s impact on students’ mental health is “all over the board.”
At the Faribault Area Learning Center, where she works, many of the students work 30 to 40 hours a week on top of juggling school, which was already taxing prior to the pandemic.
Some struggled with school even before COVID-19, and online classes pose an even bigger challenge. Like adults, students are tired of dealing with high levels of stress that come with being in a pandemic.
They might have siblings to look after while completing school work, they might lack parental support during the day or at all, and they may have given up on school. The hands-on classes, extra curricular activities and in-person friendships that motivated them to attend school are gone, so they may struggle to find a new motivator.
“It’s important we get a message out to everyone that it’s a normal response to not function like usual, and we can do our best with what we have and be OK,” Roessler said. “... We truly are in the middle of something we’ve never been in before. To ask for help is perfect because we’re all in this together, and we can create those human chains to go out and rescue someone who feels like they’re drowning.”
It’s no surprise then that school counselors are seeing increased need for support services. At St. Peter High School, Counselor Maggie Carlson said that one of the most common issues is students finding the motivation to turn in assignments and keep up with school work.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised that teenagers struggle to manage their learning independently,” said Carlson. “The teenage brain isn’t yet fully developed. It is encouraging that many students are able to manage this, and we have been working with others to practice these time management skills. Teachers are also finding creative ways to really build on those relationships with all of their students.”
When it comes to academics, Roessler said students are more likely to drop off the board during distance learning. Students at the ALC, many of whom already struggle with learning in a traditional classroom setting, find distance learning difficult and stop signing on and completing assignments as a result of feeling discouraged. Despite teachers’ best efforts to call and reach out, Roessler said students feel guilty for failing, and continue the cycle of not showing up.
As a counselor, Roessler admitted she feels overwhelmed by the number of students who have gone missing. The school doesn’t want to lose students, and teachers will knock on doors if they have to, so she hopes students understand someone cares for them.
“I think the best thing we can do for our students is to give them the grace and the space to find themselves again,” Roessler said. “… Start focusing on what they have done and not what they haven’t done.”
“Falling behind” has new meaning during a pandemic. Since COVID-19 is a national issue, expectations for high school students is different than previous years.
“Students aren’t necessarily ‘falling behind,’ they are exactly where they should be,” said St. Peter’s Carlson. “We never expected a pandemic to occur and we are learning a lot from it. With that, we haven’t been able to teach everything that we wanted in the way that we had originally planned. Everyone is adapting. Many students are able to follow and work this way but also, many are having some struggles.
Carlson added that many students are thriving in distance learning. While mental health issues are on the rise, Carlson said the problems stem from a variety of reasons and not just distance learning.
Academics aside, the pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of activities synonymous with the high school experience, like homecoming and prom. But Roessler has observed two “camps” of parents in terms of their response to these cancellations. While some downplay the importance of these rites of passage, insisting “it could be worse,” others grieve the cancellations as their own losses, causing their children to feel more distressed.
Roessler encourages parents to meet the child where they’re at and “don’t add grief on top of grief.”
As a parent of two teenagers, Roessler said, “I think the big thing we as parents have to remember is that it’s OK to not have the answers and not have the fix and just be with our children and keep our eyes open for major changes.”
No matter their young age, elementary school children are not exempt from the mental health impacts of COVID-19. Kristian Pfarr, a K-5 counselor at Le Sueur-Henderson, said the pandemic has impacted students and their families in a variety of ways.
“I think for kids for whom home life is unstable, whether it’s their housing situation or parents are working, I think home life is then stressful, because parents are also trying to do the school work or help facilitate that,” said Pfarr. “Especially for elementary kids, if they’re not sure how to do the technology. Households are stressed right now, and you have some of them where parents are stressed because they lost their job. There’s a lot of added stress at home that spills over to the students and their academics too.”
Some of the most frequent problems for elementary students is motivation, said Pfarr. Self-motivation can already be challenging at a young age and when kids have the choice between logging into Zoom or picking up a video game, some may end up choosing the latter.
Technology can be an obstacle as well. Younger children often don’t have as solid grasp on online learning as older kids and parents might not know how to address the issue either.
With the added challenges of the pandemic on learning and mental health, Pfarr is spending more time on individual meetings and home visits with students. In the past, Pfarr has worked a lot more with students in group and classroom settings, but with more students not showing up to online classes the counselor has focused more on students that teachers have reported concerns about.
These sessions often include a one-on-one visit where Pfarr tries to address the issue whether its related to mental health and stress or technology access. Her office has also developed individualized checklists for families and holding individualized Zoom meetings with kids to offer them encouragement.
Though the pandemic continues to be taxing on student’s mental health, Pfarr observed less stress than when distance learning debuted in Minnesota schools in the spring. Back then, everything was closed at once, which meant kids had nowhere to socialize, not even school. But now, kids have alternatives and that’s helping with the academics, said Pfarr.
“They’re still able to go to the mall,” she said. “They had sports for awhile, and then they were taken away, but it sounds like those are going to start back up. They’ve had a few different outlets besides school, so I would say this time is a little bit easier.”
With the pandemic changing so much for students, counselors and social workers are putting a greater focus on helping kids adapt to this new reality and teaching them coping skills.
At St. Peter High School, Carlson has used personal learning plan time with all students to run through ideas for coping mechanisms. Some of those suggestions include physical exercise, breathing exercises, positive social interactions, laughter and creative expression. The school website also offers a virtual calming room to all students.
“Every school day at the high school, we offer walk-in appointments where someone from Student Services is available to chat,” said Carlson. “We all keep reminding our students that they got this, that we are here for them and we care about them.”
Parents can also play an important role in helping their kids. Mary Jo Kreitzer, the founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota, said that leading by example is critical for parents at this time, since children often absorb what their parents do more than what their parents say. She also encourages parents to share their own feelings, saying, “It’s OK to be disappointed; I’m disappointed, too.”
Children and adults alike could feel any combination of emotions during the pandemic, not just disappointment and frustration, but grief as a result of losses big and small. That could include loss of job, loss of a person who died during the pandemic, or simply loss of normalcy.
“One of things that is most important is to acknowledge the feeling,” Kreitzer said. “Those are huge emotions to have, and by suppressing feelings, they don’t go away. They sometimes come back and even turn out to be less healthy. Giving people space is important. People process feelings of grief and loss in really different ways. Some people talk, sing, do art, meditation. Besides that, just acknowledging grief alone is really important.”
In the midst of these heavy emotions, Kreitzer encourages searching for positive moments to find meaning and perspective. That could involve asking questions like, “What are some of the lessons being learned?” or “What priorities are emerging?”
“Even within a family, everyone has their own experience of loss and cumulative losses, and you can take it to a work site or a community, or a nation,” Kreitzer said. “It’s affecting all of us. Who knows what the ultimate impact of all of that is going to be? I think what we can do is to say, ‘What’s within our control? How do we take care of ourselves and our families? How do we create wellbeing within this time?’”
It of course depends on one’s own perspective and experiences, but for many, 2020 is a year they’re happy to leave behind.
Dominated by a pandemic, a stalled economy and plenty of contentious politics, it wasn’t always the easiest task to read the news headlines. And that was no different in St. Peter than anywhere else. But for all the discourse dominated by COVID-19, there were still time for important local stories — whether challenging or heartening.
There were fires that tore buildings down but also developers that put them up. There were untimely deaths but also inspiring fights. There were failures on the system but also triumphs within it.
It was a year full of the unexpected, even while routines became more monotonous. Here are 10 of the biggest stories in the St. Peter Herald in 2020, counted by website statistics and reader votes. Plus, three honorable mentions worth noting.
There is no getting around that the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic was at the forefront of news for almost the entire year. Since the first case was confirmed in Minnesota in early March, residents across the state wondered what impact the disease would have, and it certainly has made its mark.
At the end of December, the state had counted over 5,100 deaths from more than 413,000 confirmed cases. For reference, the 2019-20 influenza season in Minnesota produced 197 reported deaths. The lack of a vaccine caused COVID-19 to be more dangerous, as there has been no wholly effective preventative measure to stop the disease from reaching the most vulnerable.
For its part, Nicollet County had reported 30 deaths from over 2,000 confirmed cases at the end of the year. Many of those deaths came from long-term care facilities, and most were in residents older than 60, but a handful were under that age.
The statistically most read story of the year on the Herald website came in late March, when a 26-year-old was reported to have contracted the virus. It was a sign of spread, though it wasn’t yet classified as community spread, due to the nature of the transmission.
Confirmed community spread would soon follow, though, and as much was still be learned about the disease, community members were interested in how this latest development might impact everyone.
Nicollet County Health and Human Services Director Cassandra Sassenberg had a message for the community.
“While this is the third confirmed positive case in Nicollet County, we know testing to be limited,” Sassenberg said. “We are asking Nicollet County residents to take protective measures, like staying home and avoiding social gatherings. The goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19, so we don’t overwhelm the health care system. It’s important for all of us to do our part to protect the people in our lives who are at higher risk for serious illness.”
That advice would continue to be repeated for the next nine months, as the virus’ impact continued to grow.
In the thick of the 2020 United States presidential election, President Donald Trump set out to visit Mankato. He already visited Minnesota, as had his opponent and now President-elect Joe Biden. But the current president visiting so close to the St. Peter community and at such an important time certainly peaked the interest of readers.
After reports surfaced Thursday, Aug. 20, details of the trip were mostly confirmed by Friday, Aug. 21. Trump’s campaign team said in a release that the president would visit the Mankato Regional Airport, starting 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 24. The team said that the visit was not a public event or rally.
Mankato Police was contacted ahead of time for security purposes.
Trump had carried Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona as part of his Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but some polls showed him trailing Biden in those states this year — he would go on to lose them. Trump narrowly lost Minnesota four years ago, but aides felt he could turn that state in his favor this time around — he ended up losing the state by a larger margin.
Mankato, part of the 1st Congressional District, which featured a hotly contested campaign between incumbent Republican Jim Hagedorn and Democratic challenger Dan Feehan, which Hagedorn went on to win, was seen as a target area for the Trump campaign. Given the pandemic, there was not as much hoopla as one might expect from a visit, but a sizable crowd was still invited and did attend the rally.
Minnesota met Hollywood in March, as local Kasota business Drive A Tank became the site of an upcoming WWII film starring Tom Berenger and Ron Perlman.
After years of working in Minnesota, actor, writer and director Luke Schuetzle decided that the local business would be the perfect spot to film his new movie “Battle of the Bulge: Winter War,” a sequel to his 2018 picture “Battle of the Bulge: Wunderland,” which starred Schuetzle as Lt. Cappa alongside Tom Berenger, who is known for films such as “Platoon,” “Major League” and “Sniper.”
“Tony, of Drive A Tank, was gracious enough to let us come shoot for free and use some of his tanks, which obviously were vital in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II,” said Schuetzle. “So we’re out here shooting with some American vehicles and tanks and utilizing good Minnesota snow.”
“Winter War” chronicles the infamous German surprise attack on allied troops between December and January 1944-45. The film returns to United States Lt. Cappa and his squad as they make their way behind the invading German army. They eventually find a U.S. supply depot that Sgt. Harris, an African-American soldier, is guarding. Upon the discovery, the troops must make the decision on whether to stay and defend the depot or leave it for the Germans.
“Battle of the Bulge: Winter War” is available for rent on Amazon Prime Video.
A search warrant application filed in Nicollet County District Court indicated that Dwight Selders, the owner of KingPins Bowling Alley in St. Peter, started the fire that caused the building to burn to the ground Feb. 16. He reportedly told investigators that it was an accident.
In a recorded statement 11 days after the fire, Selders reportedly said that he was at the bowling alley Feb. 16 morning and accidentally caused the fire. He said he was working on a pin-setter with a torch when he accidentally set a towel/cloth on fire; he said that towel/cloth was inside a bucket with other flammable material. He told the fire marshal that he panicked after the fire was set and left the area, turning off the lights behind the pin-setter as he left.
He was later charged with first- and second-degree arson, both felonies. He is currently scheduled for a jury trial to begin April 12, 2021, with a pre-trial appearance in March.
According to the charges 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 entrancing the building between those periods.
Upon entering the building Feb. 16 morning, Selders allegedly walked to an area behind the pin setting machines, shown on surveillance video. The video reportedly then showed a light, later identified as fire, coming from behind the pin-setting machines. Selders then allegedly walked away from the pin-setting area and was seen on the surveillance video looking back “toward the pin-setting machines area as fire continues to build …” He left the building at 7:30 a.m., according to the complaint.
Two residential fires in contrasting socio-economic environments also grabbed headlines in 2020.
In February, a multi-million-dollar home in construction on the northeastern shore of Lake Minnetonka burned down Feb. 13 morning. It belonged to a member of a prominent local business family.
Jon Davis, former CEO of Davisco Foods (previously St. Peter Creamery), was the owner of the in-development mansion in Wayzata. In addition to other businesses, the Davis family also owns the Le Sueur-based Cambria; Jon’s brother, Marty, is CEO. The siblings grew up in St. Peter.
According to reports, authorities said the home burned for more than half a day. Wayzata Fire Chief Kevin Klapprich told the Star Tribune the unoccupied property at 2750 Gale Road on Breezy Point in Woodland, caught fire at about 6:15 p.m. Feb. 12. Soon after, one firefighter reported “a large explosion” as flames overwhelmed the structure, according to emergency dispatch audio.
According to Zillow, the Lake Minnetonka property was sold in 2017 for $5.4 million. Davis is the registered property owner; he lives elsewhere on the lake. He expressed gratitude for the work of firefighters.
Four months later in early June, Firefighters and law enforcement were on scene June 4 at around 1 p.m., as Ell-Mar Apartments, off North Washington Avenue in St. Peter, caught fire.
One firefighter sustained a minor injury, which was treated on scene, and there were no other injuries, according to a news release, but there was damage to the building. One resident had to escape from the third floor by climbing down a St. Peter Fire Department ladder from the balcony.
On scene, residents shared what they saw. Mary Ferguson was inside the four-story complex when she noticed smoke coming outside of the building.
“When I came outside, at the top, there was barely anything, but on the third floor, the flames were just coming out,” she said. “And then all of a sudden, the second floor got it, then our apartment on the first floor got it.”
The building management company, Lloyd Management, secured housing for all occupants needing it after the fire.
The third fatal crash in two days in Nicollet County occurred Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 21.
Aaron Glen Lloyd, a 23-year-old man from North Mankato, was killed in the Tuesday crash. A day before that, 45-year-old Naomi Sue Peterson, of New Ulm, was killed, the same day that 17-year-old Jillian Thompson, of Nicollet, was killed.
Two of the crashes occurred on Hwy. 14 on the ever dangerous two-lane stretch from Nicollet to New Ulm. Years of work have gone into a four-lane expansion of 14 all the way from Rochester to New Ulm, and that Nicollet to New Ulm stretch was the last piece of the puzzle.
The two fatalities on the road in January helped move the conversation quickly at the Legislature, and with Gov. Tim Walz connection to the area, and some local legislators continuing to vocalize their support, the state targeted federal funding for the project. That funding was secured in September. Construction is still a few years out.
While the killing of George Floyd by a police officer occurred in Minneapolis, there was no escaping the ripple effect only 50 miles away. The incident sparked protests (and in some cases, looting and rioting), not only in Minneapolis, but in cities across the United States and even the world.
It enhanced an already ongoing conversation about policing, including significant suggestions in Minneapolis that a police department should be disbanded altogether. That severe of an action did not end up occurring, but no doubt the moment impacted police work and community relations going forward.
A virtual discussion series in Greater Mankato and St. Peter wanted to analyze just that, bringing together civil rights and diversity advocates, along with law enforcement, to talk about what issues and solutions there might be for community policing in the area.
While the programming had no standing to direct change in policy or decision-making, organizers hoped that vocalizing the issues would help law enforcement to know expectations and be held accountable, with the same expectations placed on the wider community.
“The goal of this series is to motivate, educate, and empower community members and civic leaders to improve policing in the area,” said Yurie Hong, of Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato.
Residents in St. Peter were excited for another grocery store option in town, as Hy-Vee opened on the north side in August. Before the actual opening day, the store announced in June that it was coming soon and a Starbucks coffee shop would be included inside.
The new grocery store, which took the place of the old Shopko Hometown on the north end of town, near Hallet’s Pond. Hy-Vee renovated the space to meet its needs. The store came with food service, offering lunch and grab-and-go items, like pizza and Chinese food. It also offers a flower shop area, deli and bakery. The footprint is smaller than the two stores in Mankato.
Hy-Vee Senior Vice President of Communications Tina Potthoff said in August the company had no immediate plans for expanding the building. The St. Peter Shopko building is about 36,000 square feet; the uptown Mankato store, first opened in 1997, is about 68,500 square feet.
It was noted in a December St. Peter City Council meeting that Hy-Vee staff is exploring a spot across the road for a potential gas station and convenience store.
The pandemic changed life in many ways, but perhaps the most drastic was the change to education, specifically public schools. To mitigate the risk of community spread, districts across the state and country changed learning models, often resorting to distance learning.
In August, St. Peter Public Schools announced it would begin the year in hybrid mode, meaning half of the student body would be in schools one day and the other half would be in the next. This format continued to be used until the district needed to switch to all distance learning in November.
Now, heading into the second half of the school year, the district plans to bring back the youngest students in January for full-time in-person learning, while middle and high school students will return to hybrid mode, potentially reaching in-person status by February. It will all depend on the evolution of the pandemic, as a vaccine is distributed.
While River’s Edge Hospital lost a competent leader in CEO George Rohrich, who headed to the northwest coast, in 2020, it had plenty to boast.
Before the pandemic hit, hospital leadership was sharing its story, noting a growth from a hospital on the brink to a thriving community institution. In recent years, the hospital has not only climbed out of the hole and righted the ship, it has expanded physically, grown financially and evolved into a model example of a high-functioning independent small hospital.
And that’s no small feat in a health care climate today that has seen countless community hospitals be overtaken or simply close. The road to today required effective leadership, courageous decision-making, staff buy-in, community trust and a whole lot of positive energy.
“We’re busier than we’ve ever been, but we have more fun than we’ve ever had,” said Chief Human Resource Officer Jackie Kimmett. “We are a family; we care about our employees.”
Nicollet County Health and Human Services has received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine and is working with community partners and the state health department to start vaccinating priority populations.
The COVID-19 vaccine is rolling out in a phased approach due to a limited number of doses available. More doses will continuously be made and distributed, but county staff cautions that it will take time and be a fluid situation. Timing of vaccination administration will vary from county to county due to a differing number of individuals requiring vaccines in each community.
The first people who are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine are those with the highest risk of getting infected: front-line health care workers and adults in long-term care facilities. As more COVID-19 vaccines become available, more people will be offered vaccinations. The next priority group includes individuals who are 75 and older and essential workers. Our agency is testing clinic formats, including in person and drive-thru options, keeping in mind community safety, privacy and efficiency.
More details about the plans for vaccination priority groups and the model of delivery will be shared as they become available. Please refer to Nicollet County’s Facebook page and website, as well as the St. Peter Herald for regular updates.
Studies show that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine are 95% and 94.5% effective, respectively, in preventing COVID-19. With these two vaccines, people will need two doses about a month apart for full protection. After the second dose, it will take about two weeks for your body to build up protection. Initially, these vaccines will be for adults only because we need more data on the use in children. Additional trials are coming to determine how the vaccines may work for those younger age groups.
Ultimately, all Minnesotans will have an opportunity to be vaccinated.
Although the increasing availability of effective coronavirus vaccines suggests there may finally be a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, this is no time to let down your guard. While COVID-19 vaccines are effective in preventing COVID-19, you should continue to follow other prevention protocols already in place:
• Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth.
• Stay at least 6 feet apart from other people.
• Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 70% alcohol.