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Gustavus Adolphus masked students

Amid rising COVID cases, school district switches to distance learning

As COVID-19 cases reach new peaks in Nicollet County, and across Minnesota and much of the United States, the St. Peter School Board voted Nov. 10 to make a fast change to distance learning.

Starting Monday, Nov. 16, St. Peter Public Schools will move to distance virtual learning for all students. Friday, Nov. 13 will be an off day, so teachers can prepare for their new distance-only courses. The district plans to remain in distance mode until the end of winter break Jan. 4.

St. Peter Public Schools South Elementary kindergarten teacher Kim Depuydt teaches an online class from her desk. The district will switch to distance learning, starting Nov. 16 and lasting likely until at least Jan. 4. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Hildebrandt)

The state of Minnesota advises that any district that feels it cannot offer in-person instruction should also suspend any extracurricular activities, and that will be the case for St. Peter. Activities, including sports will be suspended until further notice, starting Nov. 16.

Throughout the school year, St. Peter has operated in a hybrid mode for all students, except early childhood. Students have come to school every other day, learning from home the other days, in order to appropriately keep distance between kids and between staff members.

However, the virus/disease has been spiking recently, spreading faster than ever, and the St. Peter School District has not been immune. Superintendent Bill Gronseth noted there has been 220 cases in Nicollet County in the past 14 days, with 46% of those being in zip codes served by the school district.

As of Nov. 10, Nicollet County had reported 982 confirmed COVID cases, including 20 deaths. The newest case rate for the county (the cumulative number of cases by county of residence per 10,000 people), to be released Nov. 12, was projected to be about 48.25, and county officials believe that the rate taking place right now is 65.12 (that won’t be posted until two weeks from now). The state recommends distance learning only for districts in counties with rates above 50.

St. Peter Public Schools also serves Le Sueur County, where the numbers are similarly spiking.

A chart was presented during the St. Peter School Board meeting Nov. 10, showing the rising number of COVID-19 cases within the district in recent weeks.

Within the district itself, numbers are also increasing. This week along, four positive cases were already reported at the elementary by the end of Tuesday, plus four at the middle and high school levels. Meanwhile, 41 elementary students were under needed quarantine and 37 at the middle/high school levels.

“We’re seeing more close contacts at school for both staff and students,” Gronseth said. “This week has felt different than the first seven weeks. I’m on the phone a lot, because it seems like we are seeing multiple cases on a daily basis. It’s all happening a lot faster than it was before.”

Jody Fischenich, a nurse with Nicollet County Public Health, said she agreed with administration’s recommendation to move to distance learning.

“I wholeheartedly agree with the superintendent’s recommendation … Unfortunately, I believe this is what it’s going to take for the health and safety of the entire St. Peter community,” she said.

During the meeting, School Board member Drew Dixon expressed his desire to listen to the date and follow the state’s guidance.

Shea Roehrkasse teaches a health class at St. Peter Middle School during the pandemic-impacted 2020-21 school year. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Hildebrandt)

“I think the advice of the counties and the state has been very methodically data-driven,” Dixon said. “Right now, our case rate has passed through the gate that says we should be distanced in both elementary and middle school/high school. I’m comfortable with the state’s guidance on that. We’re part of a larger picture, which is public health. We didn’t ask for this problem, but we still have a job to do with this problem.”

It’s not just St. Peter Public Schools making the switch. Le Sueur-Henderson switched to distance learning for its middle/high school Oct. 25; Tri-City United will switch to distance learning for all grades Nov. 18; Nicollet moved from in-person to hybrid; Mankato, Faribault and Owatonna school districts were all considering the switch to distance this week, too.

Some districts, though, are standing pat. New Ulm has a case rate of 61.1, but it is not changing from in-person, because it is reportedly not seeing spread in its schools. Waseca, at 42.8, is staying hybrid for now, as it reports 0 cases thus far in students or staff.

Classes like Amanda Blue’s Intro to Culinary Arts at St. Peter High School are difficult to teach virtually. (Photo courtesy of Kurt Hildebrandt)

The St. Peter School Board ultimately agreed, though, that the virus is clearly impacting students and in-person classes may be contributing to the spread. The board voted 5-1 in favor of the move to distance learning (Tracy Stuewe was against due to the length of the change). Board Chair Ben Leonard emphasized that feedback on the decision should be going to the district and the board.

“Our teachers are professional; they’re going to do what we ask them to do,” Leonard said. “We’ve received enough comments from the community to know this is a decisive issue. Please do not contact your teacher about that. This is not up to the teachers; it’s up to the board and the administration.”

The school district will be sharing information with students and families, regarding their new schedules, in the coming days.

Board member Jon Carlson, who was wary of the change, sent out a challenge to the community.

“I’d ask the community to surprise the people who think these numbers are just going to go up,” Carlson said. “Please mask, please social distance. Let’s get our kids back into school.”

Record numbers of absentee ballots make for hectic local vote tally
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It was all hands on deck at Nicollet County as the election office prepared to process a record number of absentee ballots. A total of 11,290 ballots, nearly 60% of votes in the county, came through Nicollet’s election offices, requiring the county hire new staff and utilize new space.

“We’re not set up to be one polling place for 20,000 voters,” said Nicollet County Election Administrator Jaci Kopet. “So we took over the county board room and our in-person polling place. We hired extra staff to assist in the backroom area and also helping voters who were voting in-person and even using other county staff from other departments.”

The influx of absentee votes to Nicollet County was about five times the 2,600 mail-in ballots the county received in 2016 and handling a majority of the votes was a first for the election office. In 2016, 85% of the ballots were cast at polling places. Nicollet County hasn’t ever needed outside help to count ballots, but this election, the office hired six extra staff members to count the absentee ballots.

It was a similar story at Le Sueur County, which received more than 7,000 absentee ballots this year, making up around 40% of the vote total. It’s a substantial increase from the ballots received by the county in 2016 and 2018. In 2016, Le Sueur County received 1,772 absentee ballots and 3,619 in 2018.

“Just the volume, the number of voters and the number of absentees — that was all up compared to previous years,” said Le Sueur County Election Administrator Carol Blaschko. “So there was more work as far as the quantity that we had to do than in the past. It took us longer to do that part of it this year than in the normal election.”

“I’ve been here 41 years,” she added. “I’ve never seen it as big as this year.”

Both counties were also receiving some ballots in the days after the election, which are eligible to be counted, pending court decisions in the state.

Counties were at their busiest in the lead up to the election. While they began accepting absentee ballots since Sept. 16, staff had to set aside ballots in a secure area until two weeks before the election. Then those last 14 days, election officials had the task of reviewing ballots, duplicating them if damaged or unreadable by the tabulator and inserting them into the ballot counter. The volume of absentee votes made the work take much longer than usual.

“There were so many moving parts in this election, there was never a dull moment from Sept. 16 on,” said Kopert.

Election night itself was smoother in comparison, though Le Sueur County did not report full results until after midnight. While precinct ballots were being uploaded, the county had to wait to report the results until all absentee ballots went through and rosters were checked to ensure people that voted absentee did not vote at the polls. Typically this would be finished during the day, but Blaschko said some ballots arrived later in the day and people from mail-in ballot districts voting at the courthouse took staff time away from counting.

For Nicollet County, the election night tabulation was fairly normal. Since there was an influx of absentee ballots, there were less people voting at the polls and the ballots did not take up as much time to process as the 14 days counting mail-ins.

“Election day went off without a hitch,” said Kopert. “We were prepared for many situations if anything arised, A lot of hard work and planning before made for a really good election day.”

City agrees to convert COVID business loans to grants

With just over $900,000 available to the city for pandemic-related costs in federal CARES Act funding, leaders are eyeing business relief.

After the the Economic Development Authority voted Oct. 22 to recommend that COVID emergency loans, distributed this spring, should be converted to grants, the City Council unanimously voted in agreement Nov. 9. With the council’s approval, the change will go into effect, and business owners now won’t need to pay the loans (now grants) back.

The city’s COVID emergency loan program started in April. The city expended over $480,000 in 0% interest loans to 56 small businesses through the program. Staff encouraged any and all small businesses to take part, noting that the payback period didn’t begin until 2021, and even if a business wasn’t sure if they would use the money, it could keep the funds and simply give it back later.

When the city received its $900,000 in CARES Act funds from the federal government, though, staff quickly compiled pandemic-related costs, including payroll, leave and extra time, PPE, legal, IT, business support and more. All of that only accounted for about $75,000, so the city used a small portion of the CARES funds to pay that back. Another $50,000 was then used for a utility assistance program in partnership with Minnesota Valley Action Council.

After the utility assistance program and the expenses are paid back, there is still about $777,000 in CARES Act funds left. So now the City Council will use a large chunk of those remaining CARES dollars to forgive the business loans.

The EDA members in October were all in favor of the move, with just a few questions. Brad DeVos, who is also on the City Council, asked if there was any concern that other businesses missed out, since the original offerings were loans, not grants. Community Development Director Russ Wille noted that the city made it clear that all eligible businesses should take the opportunity back in April, because even if the loans remained as such, they’re 0% interest and deferred a year, so the businesses could just keep the $10,000 as a deposit and pay it back if they didn’t use it.

“Subsequent to closing the loan on Aug. 31, I had two businesses that had made inquiries,” Wille said. “Both of them, I had exhaustively suggested that they take the $10,000 loans with 0% interest and just deposit it, if it gave them some comfort. Neither one did, but now of course there’s been chatter that these could be converted to grants. The city administrator (Todd Prafke) would not suggest reopening, because we did make a pretty valiant effort to get people to take the loans.”

“We did say at the beginning that businesses can take the loan and hold onto it,” City Administrator Todd Prafke said earlier in October. “We encouraged people to apply, even if they didn’t know if they’d use the dollars. Also, we did not know at that time if the CARES funding would even exist (meaning the city didn’t know the loans would become grants).”

Another question EDA members had was whether businesses that have closed since originally taking the loans should be seeing theirs converted to grants. Wille said staff agreed that it was best to treat all applicants the same, regardless of the current status of their businesses.

Remaining funds

With the council approving the loan-to-grant conversion, more than half the CARES dollars will go toward that project. But the city should still have approximately $289,000 left to spend, though that will likely come down slightly, as the city continues to incur expenses related to the pandemic.

Leaders have questioned what exactly the city could do with those remaining dollars, as the CARES Act funds are intended to be spent for pandemic-related purposes. Staff had suggested dollars could go toward the city’s emergency services, but it was believed that documentation would need to be provided to indicate that those services were used for pandemic-related purposes. However, in more recent guidance from the United States Department of the Treasury, that documentation is not needed and instead there is a presumption that any money going toward emergency services would be pandemic-related.

Essentially, that means that whatever leftover CARES Act dollars the city has could go toward its emergency services budget and potentially save local taxpayers some money, although the CARES Act dollars are coming from federal taxes at the end of the day. Some of the councilors, including Keri Johnson, expressed great surprise that the restrictions on spending could be so lax.

“It’s amazing to me that we were so concerned about the auditing process and being extremely careful in doing this right, and now this just blows my mind,” she said at the Oct. 5 meeting.

Beyond putting the leftover CARES dollars toward emergency services, the city could pursue other opportunities, like assisting nonprofits, expanding the utility assistance program, doing more business grants, etc. It has until Nov. 15 to allocate the funds or they go back to Nicollet County. The county has until Dec. 15 to allocate all of its funds, or they go back to the federal government.