Cassandra Sassenberg is taking on a role she never expected at Nicollet County Public Health.
With a background in human services, it was a bit of a leap for her to take over at the top a few years ago when the Human Services and Public Health departments merged in Nicollet County. Now, for the last year, she has been at the head of the county’s response to an historic pandemic that has cost millions of lives worldwide.
“I had a lot to learn, particularly about emergency preparedness planning. It’s been fascinating to learn about it, to implement it, but it’s also been difficult,” she said. “The vaccine is the most exciting and rewarding part we’ve been able to play.”
Sassenberg was speaking about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that the county Health and Human Services team has led distribution of over the last couple months. Instead of constantly reporting a spreading virus and new deaths, the team is reporting lower case rates and more people protected from the virus.
“It’s like we’re finally starting to see the light,” Sassenberg said.
Of course, the disease is far from gone at this point. As of Feb. 9, there were over 2,300 positive cases reported, including 40 deaths. The numbers, specifically the positive cases, have slowed in 2021 (compared to the peak rates of November and December 2020), but part of that could be explained by lower testing.
“I would say it seems that is has slowed locally. We also believe there is a significant decrease in testing,” Sassenberg said. “We have heard that without the federal time off – the 80 hours of emergency time – we’ve heard people say they won’t be tested, because they don’t have the time off to do it.”
The deaths have continued to increase gradually, and Nicollet County has one of the higher per capita death rates from the virus statewide, partially due to the impact on long-term care centers here early on in the pandemic. The goal with vaccinations is to see people stop dying and being severely hospitalized from a disease that is now believed to be at least somewhat preventable.
The county Health and Human Services team this week surpassed 1,000 residents vaccinated; that doesn’t include residents vaccinated through pharmacies and other private businesses in the area, but those numbers would be low at this point. There are estimated to be over 34,000 people living in Nicollet County, so those vaccination numbers are represent only a small portion of the population.
It’s better than nothing, certainly, but the team of Nicollet County hopes supply can soon meet demand.
“Overall, we are glad to see we’ve gotten an allocation every week, so we’ve gotten at least one clinic weekly; we have four clinics this week,” said Sassenberg at a clinic Feb. 8. “We’re concerned about receiving small allocations of only about 100 to 200 per week. We’re prepared to set up and hold large vaccination events. It’s taxing on local resources to have small clinics daily, especially since we’ll need to give second doses eventually.”
At the clinic Feb. 8, a number of Nicollet County residents and workers were getting their first shots. Dave Dahl was among them, qualifying as a person who works in the mortuary business.
“We deal with the public every day, doing the funerals and visitations,” he said. “I’m glad, absolutely, to come in today.”
Emma Baumann works at South Central College in North Mankato and helps with the nursing assistant exams.
“I feel pretty good about getting the shot. My parents are both high risk and they got their first shots,” she said. “It’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The county is currently vaccinating Phase 1A Priority 3 patients, which includes health care personnel, early education to grade 12 teachers and staff, and childcare workers. The team is hoping it can move to the 65 and older population, starting with independent living facilities, next week.
There is certainly no shortage of people who want the vaccine — another reason why Sassenberg is hoping for mass clinics soon.
“The groups have been very specific, so we’ve been able to reach out to health care facilities in the county, along with school districts. For this last round, our childcare licensor reached out to all her homes, and I reached out to principals and superintendents,” Sassenberg said. “It’s a pretty complicated process right now, so that’s another reason we’re looking forward to mass vaccinations. We had to cancel appointments today, because people were sharing the link with one another, and we had people signing up who didn’t qualify.”
But large quantities or small, the county is going to take whatever vaccine it can get: “As taxing as it is, every time we have the opportunity to receive the vaccine, we say ‘Yes.’”
It’s been an unusual year for middle and high school students all across the country and most of the globe, amid a pandemic that has forced distance learning, delayed sports and canceled events, but in St. Peter, students might be getting some sense of normalcy for at least the last quarter of the year.
The St. Peter School Board voted in February to move all middle and high school students (grades 5-12 in the district) to full-time distance learning, starting March 22, the first day of the fourth quarter. If all goes to plan, it means students will get to see all of their classmates, albeit at a distance, for the last few months of the school year. Presently, those grades are in hybrid learning, attending class in person every other day and only seeing half their class.
“We would love to have everyone back for fourth quarter, especially for our seniors. I know I can speak for everyone who works here: we’re dying to get all kids back,” St. Peter High School Principal Annette Engeldinger said. “We just have to make sure we can do it safely.”
The safety factor is why district leaders felt it best to hold off until the fourth quarter, providing ample time for COVID-19 case rates in Nicollet, Le Sueur and Blue Earth counties to drop and time for teachers and staff to prepare for the learning model change. St. Peter Middle School Principal Jon Graff noted there will be challenges to welcoming all students back. They’ll still be required to wear face masks and they’ll need to remain at least 3 feet apart, if not 6.
“At the middle school, our biggest constraint is space,” he said. “We have some smaller classrooms, and we have class sizes typically ranging from 28 to 32 … We haven’t come up with a solution (for getting the students 3 feet apart) quite yet.”
Not all of the School Board members agreed with the March 22 date. Both Tracy Stuewe and Bill Soderlund voted against the motion, because they wanted to aim for an earlier return.
“I don’t see why we want to put out the March 22 date,” Stuewe said. “I’d rather leave it open and fluid.”
Soderlund added, “We need to get the kids back into school. I can’t, at this time, support March 22. I want to live in the solution, not the problem. There is a solution out there. How do we make this work?”
Member Jon Carlson voted in favor of the motion, but with the qualifier that he wanted options to remain open to potentially return the students sooner.
But other members, including Chair Ben Leonard, felt that staff picked an appropriate date. He noted that, with spring break in March, setting the return a bit earlier will not amount to significant time in class.
“We’re here discussing a plan that is not six months later or even two months later. It’s weeks,” Leonard said. “That’s six extra school days (from the beginning of March) that those kids won’t be in the classroom, and it will be distance learning.”
He added, “If we think we can do it well on March 22, the first day of the last quarter, I don’t see a vast difference from the beginning of the month. I don’t think those plans compete.”
Ready for return
After returning pre-K-4 students to full-time in-person class in January, school district administration is now feeling comfortable with an eventual return for the middle and high school students.
“PreK-4 has returned to all in-person learning and that has gone well,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. “We have not had any close contacts that have caused widespread quarantines. Middle and high schools have returned to hybrid learning, and that has also gone well.”
Vaccinations have also begun in Nicollet County, with now over 1,000 residents and workers receiving their first shot. About 60 staff members have received the vaccine at St. Peter Public Schools, which represents about 20% of the district workforce.
“The process continues to change,” Gronseth said of the vaccinations. “We don’t know how many vaccinations there will be or when they’ll be available; we just have to seize those opportunities when they come around.”
The case rates for COVID in area counties, meanwhile, have dropped in recent weeks. And on current pace, they will soon drop below the levels recommended by the state for hybrid and distance learning, meaning the district would have full Minnesota Department of Health approval to return all students to in-person learning. Of course, the virus remains unpredictable, and there are no guarantees.
“Distance learning will remain an option (for the district),” Gronseth noted.
Individual students can also choose full-time distance learning, and currently there are 264 students doing so: five pre-K students; 17 grade K-1 students; 33 grade 2-4 students; 93 grade 5-8 students; 116 grade 9-12 students. The district will need to continue to accommodate those learners, even if all students switch back to full-time in-person.
Teachers and paraprofessionals spoke during the School Board meeting and indicated an excitement for the potential return, but also caution in the process.
“We want to get this thing done right,” said high school teacher Keith Hanson. “Safety for our students and our staff is the first concern. We want to be able to work out some scenarios to make things work well when we come back.”
Paraprofessional Angie Fogal said the opinion she’s heard from colleagues has been divided.
“They’re concerned about the flipping and flopping — what if there is another outbreak and we need to go to distance again?,” Fogal explained. “There is also a large group of people that is really ready to get going again.”
Throughout the meeting, Superintendent Gronseth was clear that everything can still change. Case rates could drop dramatically in the next couple weeks, and all students could return to full-time learning sooner. Or circumstances could take a turn for the worse, and a move back to distance learning could be in the cards. But this is the plan leaders have for the time being.
“Given the information we have, we feel March 22 is the day we would target for all students,” Gronseth said.
The St. Peter City Council Feb. 8 took action to make development a little easier for at least one project in town.
A proposed fieldhouse development is set for 967 North Third Street, just south of Hy-Vee in St. Peter. That falls within the city’s commercial development Gateway Overlay district. The point of the gateway ordinance, as originally written, was to promote high quality development standards in the Hwy. 169 corridor, where many drivers are entering the city on both the south and north sides.
At its Feb. 8 meeting, the council voted to maintain the ordinance but relax the rules slightly. And now, developer Brad Baker is eyeing a fall 2021 opening for the fieldhouse.
“The design features and development standards included in this division are intended to create a memorable and positive first impression upon those entering the city, particularly the motoring public,” the ordinance reads. “The District also intends to establish an image and character that is distinctly St. Peter. The principles of the Gateway Overlay District are to be carried out through standards related to site planning, signage, architecture and landscaping.”
Community Development Director Russ Wille noted that, at the time the ordinance was crafted, councilors were concerned about the new Dollar General going in off of Old Minnesota Avenue, with the backside facing Hwy. 169. That store was built in a typical manner for the chain, but in a way that some interpreted as not so visually appealing.
“The council at the time didn’t feel that was the visual identity the city wanted to have,” Wille said.
The ordinance, then, called for the use of steel, vinyl or aluminum as an exterior finish to be limited to 25% of any exposed building facade. The remaining 75% of each facade would need to be brick, stone, precast concrete panels, block, glass or stucco. Examples of new developments that abided by the ordinance include the Kwik Trip and Dunkin Donuts on the south side of town and the Best Western on the north side of town.
“Some of these businesses say ‘We’re glad to meet these standards, because now I have assurance that the neighbors are going to have some level of quality to them,’” Wille said.
In order to satisfy the gateway requirements, fieldhouse developer Baker, who leads the baseball program at Gustavus Adolphus College, noted he would need to use a higher quality finish on all four sides of his building structure, which would add $28,000 to cost.
Baker never indicated that he would nix the project if that didn’t change, but he asked the city if it could relax the ordinance rules where appropriate. Since the building is on the west side of North Third Street, there is only one side facing a major city artery, but the rules still applied to his whole building.
In its fall 2020 discussion, the Planning Commission discussed completely eliminating properties immediately east of North Third Street, like Baker’s, because they could be reasonably considered outside of the gateway.
After the council discussed the matter and sent its thoughts back, the Planning Commission settled on a two-tiered Gateway Overlay District, with the original standards still applied to North Third Street properties east of North Third Street, but a second tier of regulations for properties, like the planned fieldhouse, west of the street. Structures located west of North Third Street would only need the enhanced exterior facade on building walls abutting a public street or public park.
The council approved the commission’s recommendation by unanimous vote.
Baker wants to build a fieldhouse in St. Peter to enhance baseball and softball opportunities for young players across the region. He intends to use the currently vacant land south of Hy-Vee to build a 5,000-square-foot facility with five batting cages, some weight conditioning areas and some pitching mounds.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a while — really it’s a continuation of the whole building the baseball program at Gustavus,” Baker said. “Part of it was to serve an unmet need in southern Minnesota, and part of it was to attract and retain some of the best coaches in the state. What I think we can do is leverage their experience and abilities and also create an opportunity for them to help build a business.”
He added, “The bottom line is I have a couple of guys who are working for one of the top club baseball programs in the state, and it’s in the cities. A lot of kids are driving to the cities for those programs. If you see how many kids will drive 100 miles to go train and play ball in the cities, there is no reason we can’t do it in southern Minnesota.”
Baker is ready to go; the land is purchased and the site plans are drawn. Now that the gateway regulations are loosened, he can confidently move forward with construction.”
“We are starting construction in the spring,” Baker said after the city officially made the ordinance change. “I think, realistically, it’s more of a fall/winter complex, because it’s inside. As much as I want to get it done quickly, we can be outside in the summer, so we won’t necessarily need it then. I would like to have it for that fall/winter season, though.”
“We’re excited about it,” he added.
Baker feels strongly about his vision.
“I’m fully confident,” he said. “It’s part of the bigger plan to really have baseball thrive in this area, whether it be with kids or with Gustavus athletes. It’s an awesome baseball and softball area, and I want to make sure the training and the facilities and the coaching is available to anyone who wants it without having to drive an hour out of town.”