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Waseca community sends off priest with farewell parade

It was a “tender moment” on Saturday, as Fr. Gregory Leif was greeted by a line of cars filled with members of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Waseca, the day before he delivered his final Mass. Leif is retiring after serving as a priest for 42 years, the last seven being in Waseca.

“I enjoyed it immensely,” Leif said of the afternoon parade thrown in his honor to bid him farewell. “It was like walking down memory lane. I have intensely missed them all since March.”

Due to restrictions revolving around the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the last couple months of Leif’s tenure as a priest looked nothing like he could have ever imagined or prepared for. Delivering Masses via video was new to him, but Leif said it was just another opportunity for him to see the true good in people.

“It was a real challenge when all of a sudden I was saying a private Mass and asking, what difference is God making in the midst of all this?” Leif said. “The question had a better answer than I anticipated — I saw that the people have an even deeper hunger for that strength and that peace that God provides.”

Leif said that when COVID-19 first hit, members of his congregations were showing up to pray in church every day, asking that the power of God’s healing bring protection to the world.

“These are people who really pull together and build community,” Leif said. “They truly care about one another, and I’m really proud of the people who have stepped forward.”

This was not the first time that Leif was impressed by the power and unity of the Waseca community. As Leif said in an open letter to his congregation in May, the past seven years have brought several unexpected and difficult events to the small town. Specifically, Leif recalled the incident with John LaDue, the Waseca High student who was arrested in spring 2014 and initially charged with four counts of attempted murder, two of attempted property damage, and six counts of possessing explosives after authorities discovered his large storage locker full of explosives and other bomb-making materials. According to his notes and his confession, LaDue planned to murder his family, start a diversionary fire in a nearby field, set off bombs in the school and shoot as many people as he could before being killed himself by a SWAT team.

“The people [of Sacred Heart] prayed for him and his family and the school every single day from then on,” Leif said.

Leif also mentioned storms that caused damage, the closing of the city’s largest employer and this past winter’s non-fatal shooting of Officer Arik Matson as other points of turmoil that the Waseca community endured, noting that each time the people of his congregation approached the situations with grace.

“When the town prayed on a cool windy evening, the crowd did not speak of their own discomfort,” Leif wrote in his letter of the outpouring of support for Matson immediately following his shooting. “But of their concern for this man, who served them.”

Stepping into retirement, Leif said it will be difficult to leave the people of Sacred Heart, but that he knows they are more than capable of continuing forward without him, regardless of what life might throw their way next.

“I’m absolutely convinced that the Lord will do good things in the next chapter for Waseca and for Sacred Heart,” Leif said. “I take leave with a heart full of gratitude and admiration for having to be able to meet some truly extraordinary people. I know they’ll do well, and I will be the one to miss them.”

Waseca Lakefest 2020 to host fireworks after being canceled

The Waseca Fourth of July Lakefest celebration is canceled due to lack of volunteers.

Fireworks are the only part of Lakefest that will happen this year. The fireworks will be held on Saturday, July 4 being launched over Clear Lake around 9:45 p.m.

“COVID-19 would only have been a part of the cancellation if there was an event to cancel but the lack of volunteers and planning, there wasn’t anyone to plan it this year,” Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ann Fitch said. “The Waseca Area Chamber and Discover Waseca Tourism made calls for volunteers throughout the winter and last year.”

She said that there were some inquiries about planning it but there was no one willing to take on the work.

Those who plan Lakefest have to book the music, sound, food trucks, rent the park, apply for the grant from the Waseca Area Foundation and other tasks to pull the event together.

“I personally did it last year because I didn’t want to see it be canceled and this year I was going out of town for the Fourth of July,” Fitch said.

Fitch said that there are some volunteers who have planned it in the past but are burnt out. It’s time for others to step up because this is a result of not getting new volunteers. A lack of volunteers is not unique to Lakefest.

In Waseca, traditionally Lakefest is the town celebration for the holiday. Lakefest is normally filled with live music in Clear Lake Park throughout the day along with food vendors, yard game rentals, beach house rentals, a volleyball tournament and other events. All of these festivities ended with the fireworks over the lake.

“I think that with the current rules we could have had Lakefest,” Fitch said. “There’s plenty of room to social distance out at Clear Lake Park and it’s a mellow day and I think we could have had it even with COVID-19.”

This year the family friendly day will be cut down to just the fireworks display.

“The fireworks are a joint effort between Discover Waseca Tourism and Sinister Forrest,” Fitch said. “Sinister donates a good chunk of money to Discover every year to pay for the fireworks.”

Instead of asking businesses to donate to the fund for the fireworks after being closed or only partially open due to COVID-19 some Discover Waseca Tourism reserve funds were used to help with the cost of fireworks.

People are welcome to be in their boats during the fireworks, sit in the grass, on shore or park for a good seat to watch when it gets dark. It is asked that attendees follow the social distancing guidelines while watching fireworks.

“I think there’s plenty of people who are going to miss Lakefest,” Fitch said. “Having music for basically 10 hours is really fun and you get to hear lots of artists from the area and a lot of people would come at noon and stay until the fireworks. It was fun to see people utilize the parks and I’m sure people will still use the grills and hang out, but it won’t be the same atmosphere and it’s more lost income for those performers.”

FILE — In this April 17, 2014, file photo, a statue of former Twins’ owner Calvin Griffith stands in the snow outside Target Field before a baseball game between the Minnesota Twins and the Toronto Blue Jays in Minneapolis. The Twins say they’ve removed a statue of former owner Calvin Griffith at Target Field, citing racist remarks he made in 1978. (AP Photo/Paul Battaglia, File)

Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a press conference on Friday, March 13 announcing “community mitigation strategies” intended to slow the spread of the COVID-19. Seven legislators and a business coalition have challenged Walz’s authority to declare a peacetime state of emergency over a pandemic. (Evan Frost/MPR News)

Residents wore masks and kept their distance during the parade. (Submitted photo)

Waseca public schools adopt a pandemic preparedness plan to keep staff and students safe

Waseca Public Schools unanimously passed a pandemic preparedness plan.

COVID-19 caused schools to finish the 2019-2020 school year through distance learning and now moving forward schools are creating plans to bring students back safely, if allowed.

“I think it’s a lot of preparation that you guys have been doing with the planning,” school board member Katie Youngberg said. “So kudos to that because it’s a lot of planning.”

The Minnesota Department of Education released three scenarios of what returning to school in the fall could look like. Scenario one: in-person learning for all students, scenario two: hybrid learning with strict social distancing and capacity limits and scenario three: distance learning only.

A COVID-19 Preparedness Plan was created by all businesses and now the school is using a pandemic plan from a school in Connecticut on how to keep staff and students safe if school resumes in-person in the fall.

“We just felt like we needed protocols as we move forward and this is something that is being asked of businesses,” Superintendent Tom Lee said. “This has been reviewed by a number of different individuals, our nurses have had input, the admin team had input and now we present it to you (school board) as a plan that we will move forward with. Part of today’s guidance from the state is that we don’t know what kind of model we’re going to start in but you should have plans for all three: school as normal, distance learning 2.0 and a hybrid and you need to be ready to jump between those.”

Waseca Public Schools has created a committee to improve distance learning for if and when it is needed again. When school closed in March, schools scrambled to come up with the best plan for distance learning, not knowing it would last to the end of the year. Now, Waseca is preparing and improving the system for the students.

The Minnesota Department of Education and the Department of Health will release by the end of July what school will look like in the fall.

The school board heard the pandemic plan if students return to school as usual. There are five phases for the COVID-19/influenza-like virus plan.

Phases of pandemic plan

The first phase of the plan is to return to school with no outbreak.

If there is no outbreak and students and staff return to the building there would be additional signage for hand washing and classroom education to continue routine interventions to prevent the spread of illness. This would also include teaching and reinforcing proper hygiene of students and staff.

Nurses in the buildings would communicate with staff on influenza-like symptom recognition. School nurses would also identify students who are most vulnerable to serious illnesses, compromised immune systems and other high-risk students to work with them on their health needs.

Throughout all of the phases of the plan there will be surveillance to watch students and staff closely to monitor for symptoms of an influenza COVID-19-like outbreak.

There are three levels of surveillance that will be done: standard, heightened and intensive.

Standard surveillance is defined in the school pandemic plan as no influenza-like activity reported in the community (flu season), monitor daily attendance for increased reports of absence due to influenza-like illness and do not report absences to the health department unless greater than 10 percent.

Heightened surveillance is defined by the school pandemic plan as influenza-like activity reported in the community (less than 10 percent school absenteeism due to influenza-like illness) monitor daily attendance for influenza-like illness/absences, begin morning “influenza-like check” in the first hour of school – screen those who report positive for symptoms, log absences due to influenza-like illness and send a weekly absence report (via fax) to the health department.

Intensive surveillance is defined by the school pandemic plan as a high number of influenza-like illness reported in the community (10 percent or greater school absenteeism due to influenza-like illness), monitor daily attendance and log absences on the log sheet, continue morning “influenza-like check”, send daily absence reports to the health department and begin preparation for potential school closure.

This first phase calls for numerous other safety precautions to help prevent an outbreak at Waseca Public Schools.

The second phase is an outbreak of COVID-19/influenza-like disease with less than 10 percent of students falling ill.

In this phase heightened surveillance will begin, informing parents that some students are sick but schools remain open, including information sheets and info resource lists, displaying influenza-like illness prevention signs throughout the schools and other precautions.

The third phase is an expansion of the outbreak with 10 percent or more of students ill but less than 30 percent and will keep students in school.

The plan calls for the school district to request the MDH to issue an ADA support letter to schools/epidemic declaration, begin intensive surveillance reporting, provide resources for emergency information, consider canceling any non-academic events, coordinate with the facilities director to initiate specialized cleaning procedures and numerous other steps.

The fourth phase is for a continued expansion of the outbreak with more than 30 percent of students ill. This is when the schools would have to close.

In this phase the MDH or MDE issues a declaration and school district issues press release to close schools, cancel any non-academic events and continue specialized cleaning procedures to list a few.

The final phase is what comes after an outbreak and how to return to school.

The MDH issues a declaration and the school district issues a press release that schools can reopen, continue communicating with Waseca County Public Health, return to heightened surveillance reporting and ongoing specialized cleaning procedures along with preparing for another outbreak.

Parent communication was key throughout all of the stages of a potential outbreak and following an outbreak.

Lee also mentioned that schools throughout the Waseca Public School District could be in different phases depending on what the health is like at each school.

“There is no playbook so we’re trying to establish it as we go,” Lee said of creating a plan.