Litchfield schools were closed last week, but the district continued to ensure students had school lunch.
As school closures are likely to stretch on for some time because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the district has a plan — a meal program dubbed Dragon Curbside to Go — to ensure students still have a meal, whether they're at the school or not.
“It’s so much fun seeing the faces of the students as they come through the line, and the parents and the gratitude that everybody's giving is great,” Rachael Voight, a food service assistant for Litchfield High School, said on Thursday while she delivered meals to a steady stream of vehicles that lined up near the high school's main entry.
“We miss the kids,” Voight continued. “Everybody does. Teachers, kitchen workers, paraprofessionals and janitors. … It's not the same without them here.”
The curbside pickup of meals — prepared by school lunchroom staff — ran Wednesday through Friday this week, serving more than 300 students per day, according to Superintendent Beckie Simenson.
Meals will not be served next week, March 23-27, which was on the school calendar as spring break. But an expanded service with additional distribution sites will resume beginning March 30, Simenson said in a letter to parents Friday.
Those additional pickup sites will be:
In addition, the district is developing plans to deliver meals to students who live in rural areas.
In her letter, Simenson asked parents or guardians to complete a survey for proper planning of the daily meals. The survey can be accessed at http://www.litchfield.k12.mn.us/page/3672.
"Please indicate on the survey by selecting 'I live outside the city limits and I am unable to pick up' and we will have meals delivered to your home," Simenson wrote. "You must give us consent to deliver to your home."
Parents and guardians also can indicate other special circumstances in the survey that prevent them from using the meal service, so that the district could make other arrangements to meet their needs.
Ali Lease, owner of Red Goat Bar & Grill in Watkins, used Dragon Curbside to Go Thursday to deliver to two families who couldn’t get out. One of the families had medical problems and couldn’t drive, while the other family was at work, she said.
“It'd be a total of six kids that I'm bringing food for,” the Litchfield resident said, adding that one was a middle schooler and the other five in elementary.
“I’m really glad that our community has come together to make everything work as best as possible during this time right now,” Lease continued. “It’s weird. No one probably will ever see it. Our kids probably won’t remember it, and older ones will, but the younger ones just think that it's just vacation sitting at home with their parents pretty much.”
Mayor Keith Johnson sat alone at the dais as he gaveled the Litchfield City Council into emergency session Friday afternoon.
While only a few administrative staff joined Johnson in the council chamber, he had the required quorum of members by virtue of the virtual — six council members joined the meeting via a video conferencing program.
The emergency meeting, of course, was called in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which brought a flurry of health warnings and governmental actions to close schools, businesses and restrict access to some health care facilities.
And though the meeting got off to a rough start, with Councilor Darlene Kotelnicki eventually being summoned to join the meeting in person because of technical difficulties, the technology worked well enough for the City Council to unanimously approve a pair of resolutions that give the council and administration broader powers during the emergency.
The resolution enacting the emergency declaration says, in part, the city is enacting the powers because “conditions in Minnesota and the threat to the visitors and inhabitants of the City has worsened considerably as a result of the Emergency” and “this situation threatens the provision and delivery of city services as a result of the Emergency.”
“These are unprecedented times here,” Cziok told council members. “While we continue to think about our community members and those impacted… we need to make sure we’re accomplishing our goals.”
Those goals, he explained, include police and fire protection, safe drinking water, wastewater service and electricity.
“We need to protect as many staff members as possible in order to ensure the core of local government can serve the public,” Cziok added. “If we can’t serve and fulfill our duties, our health care facilities won’t be able to fulfill theirs either.”
Later, Cziok also shared a copy of a COVID-19 Response Plan that covers four stages of effect of the pandemic, from a first stage with regional spreading virus with no known local cases to Stage 4 where the pandemic has “major staff impacts.” After brief explanation of the document, Cziok asked City Council members to review it and to offer feedback over the next couple of weeks, so that a final draft can be created and approved by the council.
Some council members asked about other city functions, such as the golf course, splash pad, campground.
“We’re so early into this, those are not questions we really want to be answering right now,” Cziok said, adding the golf course and splash pad will remain closed until further notice, though some golf course maintenance might be necessary.
Finally, Cziok turned to the financial impact of the pandemic and the community standstill it has created.
“I’m not concerned at this stage about the expense side of this thing,” he said. “Revenues is the real impact. I’m extremely concerned about what’s going to happen … if we see property tax (payments delayed) and if people can’t afford to pay utilities.”
If revenues declined by 40 percent, it would mean a $9.5 million hit to the city’s budget, Cziok explained, which would lead to a $7.5 million deficit on a “business as usual” approach.
“Obviously, that’s not something we can sustain very long,” he said.
The good news, Cziok said, is “Staff is extremely talented. I have the utmost confidence in staff.”
Added Johnson: “I know we’re in good hands.”
Owners of Bonfire Bar & Grille donated about 745 pounds of food to Meeker Area Food Shelf last week after the restaurant closed due to the coronavirus threat.
Gov. Tim Walz ordered restaurants and bars closed to the public, beginning March 17 through March 27, in an attempt to curb the further spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout Minnesota.
“With forced closure of the restaurants and bars, we had the opportunity of doing delivery or pickup,” Bonfire owner Dick Burgart said about why he decided to donate to the food shelf.
“But being located nine miles out in the country, we didn’t think there was a very viable alternative,” he continued. “So we had stuff that we thought would be spoiled or go bad between now and the time that we will be allowed to reopen, and so we decided we’d give it to the food shelf.”
Tanya Estrada, assistant director of Meeker Area Food Shelf, said that since March 16 the food shelf has seen donations increase.
“It is our March drive,” Estrada said. “So we usually would get more donations in March. But it’s not normal for restaurants to come to give us all their food like that — not at this extreme.
“It’s very nice, having all this food,” she continued. “I mean, we don’t have to worry about fresh stuff. Just in case we don’t get it from Walmart, because Walmart has been running low lately. But now that we have these donations, that stuff we don’t have to worry about for a little while.”
Meeker Area Food Shelf has changed its operations recently to reduce the risk of employees and customers contracting the virus, Estrada said.
“We’re actually putting our donations on quarantine for 48 hours,” Estrada said. “We don’t have our volunteers touch it for 48 hours, so it’s going be interesting what we’re going to have to do with this stuff. Because (COVID-19) can live on surfaces for like 12 hours, so we rather are on the safe side.”
Estrada said the food shelf is also having people call to make an appointment before coming in.
“So people call, we just ask for their names, and then we ask them what time they would, like, give them the specific times we have open, and we’re doing appointments every half an hour,” Estrada said, adding that people who come in the food shelf will be provided with gloves to wear.
Among the items Burgart, his granddaughter, Cecilia Vaillancourt, and helper Greg Zimmer brought to Meeker Area Food Shelf were loaves of bread, Texas toast, marble rye bread, frozen French fries, frozen pizza and more.
Burgart said there’s zero business at his restaurant, and it will remain that way until he can reopen again. On March 17, Burgart advised his 13 employees — three full-time and 10 part-time — to file for unemployment insurance.
“One of the difficulties with all of this is that, not just me,” he said, “but all the rest of the small businesses still have expenses that they have to meet in order to be able to reopen at some point. So it’ll be tough, and there’ll be a lot of businesses that won’t survive. That’s my estimation.”
Vaillancourt said a lot of people helped with the loading of the food in their vehicles, which made the delivery to the food shelf easy.
“There’s a lot of things happening in the world,” Vaillancourt said. “But, I think, just as a family, we really wanted to support others, and by doing this, we’re able to give food to many people that don’t have an opportunity to get it. And stores are kind of out-of-stock. We’re able to bring stuff here and maybe help a few of those families who don’t have the opportunity to go to the store and get that food.”
Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School officials met Monday evening, observing recommended social distances in the high school auditorium. Although all board members and Superintendent Nels Onstad were physically present, other school administrators joined via video conference.
Despite a few technical glitches, Onstad provided the board with several pieces of hopeful information amid the dynamic changes that took place across the state and nation this past two weeks.
The first silver lining in the storm clouds of the COVID-19 outbreak and emergency measures was that the absence of students and most staff from the ACGC buildings has allowed construction on the infrastructure renovations to proceed more rapidly. Onstad noted that not only has the high school/middle school siding removal and replacement commenced with the recent warm spring weather, but work on heating and cooling ductwork has begun. Work has also progressed faster at the elementary school in Atwater.
A second silver lining was that chaos in national financial markets had an unexpectedly positive effect on sales of the districts’ facilities maintenance and tax abatement bonds, which were sold to finance a portion of the 2020 construction work. Matthew Hammer, municipal advisor at the Ehlers financial consulting firm, said that preliminary estimates had called for the bonds to be issued at a 3.1 percent interest rate. Instead, five bids were received with the low bidder, Piper Sandler & Co. of Minneapolis, awarded the bonds at a 2.93 interest rate. Hammer said that would save the district $170,000 in interest over the life of the bonds compared to the preliminary estimate.
Distance Learning Plan
Because of the need to have a long construction season for its 2020 renovations, the board had planned for school to start early last fall and close early for summer vacation, putting ACGC students a couple of weeks ahead of their peers in neighboring schools on the academic front. Even so, with six weeks remaining of the school year, the district had to plan for students to potentially finish out their academic year via distance learning. It took principals and staff a week or so to organize a plan, Onstad said, but it is ready to be implemented within a few days.
On Thursday, March 26, parents will be given a specified time to pick up their children’s personal belongings from the school.
The Distance Learning Plan calls for students to have daily videotaped lessons from their classroom teachers. A list of families who do not have home Internet access has been compiled, and teachers will arrange alternative lesson plans for them, including phone calls and mail. (Board Vice Chair Megan Morrison noted that Meeker Cooperative has offered three months of free Internet access through Vibrant for educational purposes, for families currently lacking access.)
Depending on the students’ age and the type of curriculum, teachers will direct students on how to submit assignments for grading. Classes will have private Facebook pages set up for communications. Attendance will be taken, based upon a mandatory requirement for students to interact with each of their teachers at least twice a week.
Weekly activity maps will be communicated to each elementary student’s family by 10 a.m. on the first school day of each week. Details about how the process will work for students with special education needs are still being finalized, Onstad noted.
Teachers are expected to continue to work approximately eight hours each day. This includes one-to-three hours per day of videotaped instruction (depending on the student’s grade level), and available contact “office hours” of 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m., during which teachers will plan their lessons and contact students via phone and electronic devices.
Child care is provided for the young children of health care and emergency workers, as required by the governor's emergency orders. The numbers range from three to twelve children daily, Onstad noted.
Onstad said that plans for conducting Distance Learning are dynamic and hard to monitor, since rules related to the emergency change almost daily. Details of the Distance Learning Plan are being posted on ACGC’s website: http://www.acgc.k12.mn.us/
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