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Avery Stilwell returns a shot against Holy Family's Ally Agerland.

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LHS students find normalcy on the stage
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The show will go on for the 23 members of the Litchfield High School theater department who are staging “The Little Mermaid.”

But along with receiving the traditional theatrical encouragement of “break a leg,” some might also be hoping to break the emotional hold COVID-19 has over them and their stagemates.

“I really feel that this, this world for our kids, theater, has been a little normalcy in their unusual world right now,” director Sara Dollerschell said prior to rehearsal last week. “And it’s been great to have a routine to help stay on track.”

There was some question about whether the traditional fall musical might happen this year, with pandemic restrictions and even the question about in what form school might take place. But LHS Activities Director Justin Brown encouraged Dollerschell to go ahead with the show. It was decided cast and crew could observe social distancing and take other precautions enough to make the show safe and worthwhile. And with the live show scheduled to be performed at Bernie Aaker Auditorium, they believed there might be fewer restrictions than at a school venue.

As with everything COVID-19 related, things have changed since then. The show now will be performed before only small friends and family groups, who will attend by invitation only.

“I have no regrets just going ahead and doing it,” Dollerschell said. “There are not many communities that are doing shows this fall. They’re postponing them ‘til spring, and I felt that we, I didn’t want to do that. Who knows that the spring will hold? So, I just thought, let’s keep it as normal as possible.”

As normal as possible isn’t the same as an auditorium filled with friends, family and others. And that is disappointing, admit cast members, but they have taken an upbeat approach.

Junior Greta Hulterstrum, who is in the lead role of Ariel – her first lead in eight different musicals — said she will miss the bigger crowd reactions that a normal show might get. But just to have a show in these times is a victory.

“We have practice every day, and it gives you a sense of purpose,” Hulterstrum said. “It’s definitely disappointing, but it’s still worth it because, I mean, at least some people get to see it. And we love being here. And so, even though not as many people can see it, we’re thankful for the experience we have.”

Caleb Schweim, a senior who plays the highly comedic role of Sebastian the crab, said coming to rehearsals every day has actually been a sort of therapy.

“Honestly, I’m a bit of an introvert outside of theater,” he said with a mischievous grin, “so I kind of like this whole quarantine thing. But it is nice to have a break from my family once in a while, because being trapped in the same house with the same two people who just don’t want to hear me talk is like ….”

Dollerschell and the cast members said they’ve worked hard to follow health and safety guidelines, even though that’s a challenge at times – especially when on stage, where so much of acting is dependent upon facial expressions. A mask covering those expressions does not work very well, Dollerschell said.

“We don’t have a lot of kids, which isn’t ideal for a show like 'The Little Mermaid,' but on the other hand, because of the small cast it has allowed us to keep separated,” she said. “So in some ways, I think it’s worked in our favor.”

Most of the cast plays multiple roles, and they also work as part of the stage crew, rolling set pieces on and off the stage.

Goals have shifted on a regular basis for the cast and crew, as they first thought they might have regular-sized audiences and then learned many classmates and others might not be able to get tickets. And so they have tried to focus on what they could control – refining their characters, the sets, improving their vocals, and so on, growing as actors.

“I think this year was more about the journey than the destination,” said Jacob Huhn, a senior who plays Prince Eric in the show, his seventh.

That journey will take them to the live show this week. They are scheduled to perform two shows Wednesday, for a third-grade class in the morning and a fourth-grade class in the afternoon. That will be followed by the regular schedule of shows, one each Thursday through Sunday, to which cast members can invite 10-12 people, who will be socially distance throughout the auditorium.

The cast expects to have to work a little extra to find their stage sense and deliver roles with enthusiasm before a smaller audience.

“I think it will take a lot of energy from us as a cast, kind of working to feed off each other’s energy on stage and hopefully that can help,” Hulterstrum said. “We’re going to be excited, you know, thinking that our parents are in the audience or other people invited by use, so to me it will be exciting.”

Added Schweim: “I’m going to put everything I have into making people laugh.”

Students have viewed their public performances as gifts to the community in years past. Limiting attendance has been accepted with sadness, but they continue to look for the positive.

“I have to say, this year’s case amazed me at auditions,” said Dollerschell, who has directed the LHS musical for several years. “It was probably the best audition I’ve ever had. And they came prepared and they came willing to try new things, and that was really fun.

“I’m so grateful we got to do this,” she added. “I just can’t say enough. Even though they’re, we are, disappointed and having to make those adjustments, it’s a blessing for these kids to have something to do, when they’ve lost a lot of the things that they can do.”

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School Board continues learning model debate
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Litchfield School Board members continued to wrestle with the challenges of providing education during a pandemic, as a parent and a leader of the local medical community spoke during a meeting last week at the Wagner Education Building.

“There’s a large number of families in Litchfield and the surrounding area that are concerned about the hybrid learning model, more specifically, the distance learning portion,” said Scott Marquardt, a parent who said he represented the nearly 200 people who have signed a petition to get students back in school. “There’s certainly health concerns (with COVID-19). The question is, are those concerns worse than the side effects caused by the measures taken to social distance and keep our kids out of school.”

He pointed to a relatively low infection rate among young people, which nevertheless has kept students at home rather than in school.

“They are bored, and they are lonely,” Marquardt said of children under distance learning, and cited studies that indicate the social isolation has caused spikes in depression, domestic abuse, anxiety and online pornography use among youth. “There are a number of families in this community that feel that opening schools in person is the scientifically and morally correct thing to do.”

He encouraged the board and administrators to push back against state guidelines, adding that families were willing “to partner with our school to fight the state in any way we can.”

Superintendent Beckie Simenson said that decisions made about in-school, hybrid and distance learning models are team decisions. That team includes administrators from throughout the district, but it also includes a “regional support team” with representatives of health care facilities, as well as county public health, and even Minnesota Department of Health.

“We want what’s best for our kids,” Simenson said, and Litchfield was one of the few districts in the area to start the year with all students in school.

But infection rates in Meeker County rose dramatically – from 14.3 in early September to 25.5 in mid-September – and state guidance was for all students to move to the hybrid model, she said. However, the local team analyzed the situation and determined that only middle and high school students would move to hybrid, with elementary school students staying in school full-time.

Just before the district made that switch, there were 116 COVID-19-related absences. Since the move to hybrid for middle and high school, those absences dropped to 66, 77, then down into the 20s, Simenson said.

As those cases drop and as the county infection rate falls, Simenson said, the situation is evaluated and the learning model will change.

“We are really trying to make our learning model fit Litchfield,” she said. “As I said earlier, Ripley should be in a hybrid model (but) I don’t think that’s good for our little ones. It’s not a cookie cutter solution, and we need to make it fit for our students, and fit for our community.”

Dr. Deb Peterson, chief medical officer at Meeker Memorial Hospital and Clinics, also spoke to the board, acknowledging the strain that the pandemic has put on the entire community but also encouraging the board to stay the course. Though Peterson was the only one to speak, she was joined at the meeting by about 10 people from the hospital and clinics, as well as county public health officers.

“I thought probably it was important that you learn a little more about COVID-19,” Peterson told the board. “The decisions that the state is having to make change regularly, as they do for the Minnesota Department of Education, and that’s because we are still learning about this disease. COVID-19 has only been in our country since January, and it amazes me the amount that’s been learned. I also feel personally that our current election situation has very much made it difficult for people to separate truth from fiction.”

COVID-19’s unpredictability also has created confusion, she said, as many people become only mildly ill but others develop much more serious symptoms such as severe difficulty breathing, blood clots, strokes and in some cases die. The virus has killed more elderly than young, but it is not always the case.

“The way I’ve described it to people is it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun,” Peterson said.

While for most children it is often a mild illness and often asymptomatic, their parents, grandparents and others who might be exposed to the virus through children might not be as fortunate, she said.

“The same applies for the teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, kitchen workers and others at the school that are in the line of fire every day,” Peterson said. “As the medical community, we feel that it is our responsibility to keep people safe. We also believe COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, and we just have to figure out how to deal with it.”

What’s known about the virus will continue to evolve, Peterson added. Meanwhile, it continues to place tremendous burden on health care providers, with the number of patients hospitalized and in intensive care units in the state recently climbing back to numbers initially seen in May.

St. Cloud Hospital, twice in the previous two weeks, had been at capacity and unable to take any acute stroke or heart attack patients, She said.

“What that means is, if you or a loved one comes into our local hospital and we need to try to transfer you, we might have to call around for a half hour or more to find a hospital that can accept you, and that scares the living daylights out of me,” Peterson said. “What we do locally and individually does matter. We are the first defense (against) the spread of COVID-19. I truly believe we have to stay the course and not be confused about what we should do.

“We all have to wear a mask, we need to distance, we have to wash our hands. And if we’re sick, we need to stay home. I worry that if the school district returns to full, in-school learning before we should because of numbers, we’ll be inundated with cases of COVID-19 …. Please help us to prevent the health care system from being overrun.”

The Oct. 13 discussion was, in a sense, the continuation of one started two weeks earlier when board member Dave Huhner asked the board and school administrators to consider expanding so-called student contact days for some programs.

Under the hybrid learning model currently in place at the middle school and high school — which divides the student body into two cohorts, with one cohort attending in-school classes Monday and Tuesday and the other in school Thursday and Friday, while distance learning on the opposite days — students participate in some academic programs only on their in-school, or “contact days.”

That decision, Huhner said, creates problems because it doesn’t consider the relative safety of some programs like the industrial tech department’s house construction class. It also leaves teachers in the district who have benefited from student classroom assistants through the youth service program without the help they need.

Huhner asked that the School Board give administrators the leeway to allow some high school students to attend certain classes every school day.

The issue deadlocked the board, which voted 2-2 with two abstentions, and Huhner’s request failed.

The topic was no less challenging last week, though no vote was taken.

Julie Pennertz, who along with Marcia Provencher abstained from the Oct. 13 vote, still was torn.

“I don’t disagree with you, Dave,” Pennertz said. “My No. 1 focus is we need the kids in there (the classroom) so they can build a house, they can be going down helping in elementary schools wherever they are needed. (But) We need, to me, some more data to make a decision that is going to be effective. “

Pennertz said she worried about elementary school students who might have COVID-19 but be asymptomatic passing the virus to their high school volunteer assistants, who then carry it back to their school building to be spread more.

“The fluctuation between all the different buildings, to me that could be adding fuel to the fire,” Pennertz said, adding she thought it was important to listen to the medical community and to Superintendent Simenson’s team.

Board chairman Darrin Anderson agreed, and also added that allowing some students to attend class even on distance learning days would create inequity in the educational process.

“How can the board say that the trade house is more important than special ed kids?” Anderson said. “My thought is … we can’t put one program over another.”

Huhner replied to that by saying that COVID-19 did not treat everyone the same either. He said he worried about the child left at home during a distance learning day because their parents had to work, who accidentally starts their home on fire or is injured in some other way.

“I understand your argument,” Huhner said. “It is real. So is the other side.”

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Legislature passes bonding bill with $5 million for Litchfield wellness center
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Litchfield’s push for a community wellness and recreation center received a significant financial boost last week with the Minnesota Legislature’s approval of a $1.369 billion bonding bill.

Lumped in with a laundry list of capital projects ranging from bridge and road repair to municipal water and sewer system upgrades to building construction was $5 million for the Litchfield Wellness Center.

The city has discussed the wellness and recreation center concept for a number of years, with discussions growing more serious in the past several months as state Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, offered to assist with tracking down state funding.

Urdahl, the Republican lead on the House of Representatives Capital Investment Committee, delivered on Thursday when the Legislature approved the bonding bill.

“(The bill includes) a lot of good things to meet the needs of the state,” Urdahl said. “Keeping in mind that my goal in this was to protect the assets of the state of Minnesota and take care of what the state of Minnesota owns. That’s why we bond.”

The House voted 100-34 to approve the bonding bill, which has been stalled for months as Republicans have tried to reign in Gov. Tim Walz’s executive powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Urdahl said he had to work against his own party leadership’s wishes at times to finally gain enough Republican votes to pass the measure.

“This was maybe the hardest thing I’ve done in my 18 years is helping get this bonding bill done,” he said. “That includes the Capitol restoration. I would say this was harder than that. For the last six months we’ve been trying to put this together.”

Initially, Republicans said they would oppose the bonding bill unless the governor rescinded his executive orders, the House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said there would be no bonding bill unless it was paid for.

“I’m not saying these weren’t valuable restrictions … on the face of it, I agree with that, but we ran into a time where that just wasn’t going to work,” Urdahl said.

Bonding bills require a “super majority” for approval in the House. With all 75 DFL members expected to approve, at least six Republicans needed to vote in favor. In the end, 25 Republicans joined in approving the bill.

That was no small task, Urdahl said, given that several legislators opposed the bill, even though it included bonding for projects within their own district.

“This is our responsibility for the state to do this,” Urdahl said of bonding. “(The Republican) caucus wanted a smaller bill that still addressed the needs of greater Minnesota to the greatest extents possible.”

Along with funding for Litchfield’s wellness center, the bonding bill includes other regional projects, such as $3.1 million for restoration of Otter Lake and Campbell Lake in Hutchinson, and $1 million for the Dassel-Cokato recreation center.

About $270 million will go to municipal water projects throughout the state, nearly double the amount that’s ever been funded in a state bonding bill. College and university building will receive $160 million, affordable housing projects will receive $100 million, with another $300 million for highway projects.

While those are big numbers, the wish list was even bigger, Urdahl said, with requests totaling about $5 billion. When the Legislature convened for its regular session earlier this year, the DFL caucus sought about $3 billion in bonding, while Gov. Walz was looking at about $2 billion, Urdahl said. Meanwhile, Republicans wanted something closer to $1.2 billion.

But the bonding bill didn’t happen during the regular session, and it looked like it would wait until the 2021 session. In fact, in mid-September, Urdahl told local media that he didn’t think the bonding bill would be addressed in a special session.

He’s glad it did finally come together, however.

“It’s a good bill. It’s going to do good things for the state of Minnesota. And we’re going to pay for it,” Urdahl said.

For those worried about that last part — the paying for it — especially with the economic challenges created by the pandemic, Urdahl believes history is on his side.

“In 2008, we did have a $6 billion deficit, and we paid for it,” Urdahl said. “Capital investment generates revenue as well.”

The state has about 10,000 unemployed construction workers right now, Urdahl said. “This will put them to work. We need the stimulus that this will provide to get them going.

“In the end you’re always going to wind up with things you don’t like” with a bill that’s put together by five entities – Republican and DFL caucuses in the House and Senate, and the governor — “but it’s subjective,” Urdahl said. “You have to know in a bonding bill there will be some clunkers. You have to look at it in the grand scheme of things. Does this accomplish the needs of the state?”