October is fire prevention month with Oct. 4-10 as fire prevention week. The Waseca Fire Department stresses the importance of fire safety throughout the month through sharing information online and speaking with students.
Normally, the fire department speaks in classrooms, hosts an open house and chili feed fundraiser as well as bringing fire trucks to the schools, but due to COVID-19, fire prevention looks different this year.
“I think overall the biggest thing for us is to limit property damage and any injuries or loss of life to people. Plain and simple,” Waseca Fire Department Chief John Underwood said. “Fire doesn’t care who you are or what color your skin is, how rich you are, how poor you are, it affects us all and that’s one thing that I think it affects all of us, nobody’s exempt from a fire.”
This year, information will be taught through information shared on Facebook and online resources.
The fire department teaches residents how to check smoke detector batteries and Carbon Monoxide device batteries, create a fire exit plan and a meeting location.
People can call the fire station to ask questions or to request help with checking these items.
According to Underwood, cooking fires are still the No. 1 cause of structure fires in Minnesota, which is why he stresses safety at home.
Due to COVID-19, there won’t be any classes held at the fire station or any firefighters speaking in school classrooms, but the fire department will still bring a fire truck for students to learn about the equipment outside, if schools request it.
“We still want to interact some with the kids, because it’s a big deal for them,” Underwood said. “I’ve always said in my career here is that we start with the third graders. Those students will grow up to be safe adults and we think a lot of our fire call numbers. Bad fire call numbers are down because of fire prevention.”
This year, the Waseca Fire Department canceled the annual chili feed and open house. The open house aimed to educate adults, while the chili feed serves as a fundraiser for the Auxiliary.
“We’re one of the few businesses in the world that are trying to put ourselves out of business,” Assistant Fire Chief Jason Forshee said of trying to prevent fires. “It’ll never happen because fires will always be around, but that’s what we’re trying to do is somewhat put ourselves out of business.”
Helping people stay safe or in their time of need is why people become firefighters. Along with fire prevention month, the Waseca Fire Department wants to expand by four or five paid, on-call firefighters.
The Waseca Fire Department has 26 paid, on-call firefighters and three full-time firefighters.
Underwood said with industries leaving Waseca it has moved more of the firefighters to working out of town, so there is a dangerously low number of firefighters left in town for daytime fires.
To help combat the problem the fire department wants to add firefighters who work in Waseca and live within 10 minutes of the fire station, though it’ll accept applications from those who work out of town, too.
“We’re looking for someone who is energetic, someone who has a passion for helping people,” Forshee said. “We want somebody who is going to stick around. I think a passion for people is huge and someone who is energetic, because we really need some help. It’s not glorified pay wise, but that’s not what it’s all about. There’s a lot of people who wish they could do something for their community and it gives these folks the opportunity to do something like this. It’s a great way to step up and I’m pretty excited to see what we get out of it.”
Those who want to apply can get the application on the City of Waseca website or pick one up in person. The city covers all training costs and provides the needed equipment.
A paid, on-call firefighter provides people the opportunity to help their community with an average of 20 hours a month commitment, including training. There is upfront training when a person first starts with the department, but after that there is continuous training twice a month.
“All three of us (Underwood, Police Chief Penny Vought and Forshee) are here to help people in their time of need,” Underwood said. “When people dial 911 they’re having the worst day of their life because something is wrong, whether it’s needing law enforcement, firefighters, ambulance, something bad is happening. I think that’s why we’re here, to help those people make that bad outcome better.”
Fire department benefits include a pension, paid training, camaraderie, fun events and the position serves the community.
“I’m a fourth-generation firefighter and I grew up with it and giving back to the community,” Forshee said of why he joined the department. “Helping people on the worst day of their life.”
Another part of being in the fire department is participating in community events.
The fire department participates in parades, the Waseca County Fair, Night to Unite, school events, teaching kids and many other events in the community.
“They are a wonderful group of men and women who are just dedicated to helping the citizens of Waseca and even the county residents,” Waseca Police Chief Penny Vought said.
Teachers don’t get into the profession for recognition so when it comes, it typically surprises them, just like with Waseca Junior High school eighth grade geography teacher Andrew Hopkins when he won the 2020 South Educator of Excellence award he was surprised.
He is one of four winners chosen by the Minnesota Rural Education Association for the award. The winners were chosen because of their passion, innovation and collaboration in achieving results for students across Greater Minnesota, according to the MREA press release. There is a north, north central, south central and a south winner for the award.
Waseca Junior Senior High School Principal Jeanne Swanson, who has since retired, nominated Hopkins last year.
“Mr. Hopkins is very deserving of this award,” WJSHS Principal Jason Miller said. “He is a ‘student-first teacher,’ who intuitively knows how to build genuine relationships with students. This is the foundation of good teaching, which provides a base to explore the curriculum in creative, meaningful ways.”
The MREA committee contacted him for more information about himself before announcing he was a winner in the spring.
“I was incredibly shocked when I got it,” Hopkins said. “It’s a big deal and I’m really proud to say that I had a principal who was willing to nominate me for that. It was really an honor to be nominated by Jeanne Swanson, that was really cool.”
Typically an awards banquet takes place in Bemidji, but due to COVID-19 it is a virtual awards ceremony.
The announcement happened right as distance learning took place so MREA put off the visit to his classroom until November to film. A film crew is going to each winner’s classroom to get footage of them teaching as well as interviewing students and teachers to create a short film for the virtual banquet about each teacher.
Hopkins is not new to the limelight in the Waseca schools. In May 2019 he received the Crystal Apple award from the Waseca Junior Senior High School. Every year one teacher from the junior high and one teacher from the high school are given the award, which is chosen by students through essay submissions about someone who inspires them.
He was shocked then as well that he won the award and he was touched by the comments students wrote about him.
“It’s always nice to receive that positive message, whether it’s from students or parents or outside, but I think it validates everything I’m trying to do in here,” Hopkins said. “You don’t always get the feeling that you had a wonderful lesson leaving that day and this is just kind of that reminder that I’m not perfect, I’m never going to be perfect, but I’m on the right track, I’m going in the right direction.”
Becoming a teacher for Hopkins was all about building relationships with the students and helping them with their geography skills.
“I really got into education because I wanted to be someone who builds a relationship with the kids, who is that role model for kids, someone to look up to but I think my answer what I look forward to the most has changed since COVID-19,” Hopkins said. “Now I just look forward to seeing kids in class. I had super high ambitions pre-COVID-19. I want to see them grow into the best geographer they can be and that’s still there, but I just appreciate the little things so much more now.”
COVID-19 has forced teachers to change the way they teach and connect with students.
Hopkins uses distance learning to teach students the basic notes and content and utilizes classroom time for the tougher concepts to allow students to ask questions in the moment.
“I mean that (distance learning) was a big challenge,” Hopkins said. “You know we all go through our teacher training and our teacher preparation programs and it’s all about in the classroom and how do we best teach students and build relationships with these kids in the classroom and all of a sudden it’s all ripped away. It’s gone. The advantage we had in spring was that we had relationships built up with these students already, so one of the challenges for distance learning here is how do we achieve that same level from students we don’t have a relationship with yet. I think the students themselves have stepped up immensely, they’re doing wonderful work in distance learning.”
He said the students have done a really good job of being present in class this year and they want to be in class in-person.
“We’ve had a lot of community support over this last month of school,” Hopkins said. “It’s just been everyone coming together trying to find new ways that we can bring back kids and still maintain social distance mandates and the mask mandates, but just being able to come back we’ve had so much support from the community as well.”
He has been the eighth grade geography teacher now for four years. He started in the district as Clint Link’s student teacher while he attended Minnesota State University, Mankato. Hopkins continued at the WJSHS as a therapeutic program teacher for a year before joining a fellowship program through MSU with the WJSHS, so he could both teach and work for his masters degree. He was hired on full time for his current position after finishing his masters.
Waseca County’s COVID-19 case rate per 10,000 climbed for the seventh straight week last Thursday when the state released new data for the two-week reporting period from Sept. 9-19, but Waseca County Public Health Director Sarah Berry has started to see a downward trend in case count following that period.
Waseca County’s case rate sat at 92.51 per 10,000 for the two-week reporting period, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Waseca County has maintained the highest rate per 10,000 in the state for the last five two-week reporting periods. About 75-80% of the cases in the county have come from Federal Correctional Institution-Waseca. As of Wednesday, FCI-Waseca moved from No. 2 in the nation for COVID-19 cases in federal prisons to No. 4. The Bureau of Prisons reported 76 infected inmates and one staff member. The prison had 88 cases the day before. A total of 368 inmates and nine staff members have recovered from COVID-19, according to the BOP. FCI-Waseca has seen 445 inmates contract COVID-19 while it has tested 556 inmates. The facility houses 590 inmates.
From Oct. 1-7, Waseca County Public Health reported 114 new cases, of which 92 came from FCI-Waseca.
“It looks like we’ve made it past a hump of some kind or a hill,” Berry said. “We’re hoping that all of the testing and case investigations have resulted in appropriate quarantine so that our community members have less of a chance of contracting COVID. We’re always watching for the next hill.”
Berry expects the next two-week reporting data to remain around the same number when the state releases new data Thursday, but she’s encouraged by the lower numbers in the community outside of FCI-Waseca.
Waseca County held a drive-thru free community testing event Sept. 23-24 where 618 people got tested. Of those, only 14 came back positive for COVID-19, a positivity rate of 2.3%, according to the state.
Waseca County did report a new death last Thursday, bringing the county’s total to nine. Eight of those deaths have come in congregate care facilities. Three congregate care facilities have reported exposures, according to the MDH. Lake Shore Inn, New Richland Care Center and BridgeWater at Janesville have experienced exposures.
“We do see their numbers mirroring what we’re seeing in our general community, which is on a downward trend,” Berry said. “Things seem to be manageable.”
Excluding FCI-Waseca numbers, the county’s case rate hovers in the low 20s per 10,000, according to Berry.
Anyone exposed to the virus should self-quarantine for 14 days and wait around 10 days before getting tested, Berry said.
“Generally if you wait until at least day 10 and you remain symptom-free, after day 10 or on day 10 would be when we recommend testing be administered,” she said. “Even a negative result does not release you from the 14-day wait period.”
A test administered immediately following a notification of exposure might not detect the virus at that time since symptoms typically show days later.
Waseca Public Health has received calls from people asking how to handle when someone in the household has learned they are a close contact of an infected person. A close contact is deemed to be someone within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.
“The other household members are able to do their daily activities until that close contact would potentially develop symptoms,” Berry said. “(Close contacts) should remain separate in the home.”
As colder weather approaches, Berry recommends flu vaccinations and that people continue to follow social distancing and mask guidelines as they spend more time indoors. Berry also recommends that people continue to maintain outdoor activities, eating well and getting good rest.
“All those things help fight off any germs we might encounter,” she said.