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Harrison Mackenthun and his older sister, Hadley, are learning to make bread during Gov. Walz’ stay-at-home order. “I never had the patience or precision before, but we’ve turned it into a family hobby and it is really fun,” their mother, Valerie Mackenthun, said.


Local
McLeod and Meeker Emergency Food Shelves

Do you know where your next meal is coming from?

Many people don’t and the numbers are staggering: 10,000 cars waited for food at a San Antonio Food Bank distribution point. The line was a 1/2-mile long in both directions at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Anaheim, California. People lined up three hours before food distribution in Des Moines, Iowa, and Feeding South Florida has seen a 600-percent jump in those asking for food.

The list of those needing food support during the COVID-19 pandemic stretches from coast to coast and goes on and on.

Remarkably, the opposite is happening in Meeker and McLeod counties.

Jamie Revermann, executive director of the Meeker Area Food Shelf, said the Litchfield and Dassel sites are down a little bit from when the pandemic first started in March. She believes the reasons are due to unemployment insurance payments being good, schools getting meals out to students and the federal government’s stimulus checks.

“Our numbers have been down a little bit because programs have been so reactive in getting people the funds they need right now,” she said.

Lennie Albers, executive director of the food shelves in Hutchinson and Glencoe, said usage is down, too.

“We are down 25 percent for the month of April compared to last year,” she said. “That is overall, both sites are pretty comparable. We’re down 21.5 percent in Glencoe and 25.7 in Hutchinson, with an average of about 23.4 percent overall.”

Although numbers are down, Albers said those using the food shelf now range from new people they’ve never met before to clients they haven’t seen in a long time. Regulars, she guessed, were sheltered in place a little bit more and were not coming in as often.

“People are in a little better spot,” she said. “The longer we go, we expect to see more people.”

Meeker and McLeod counties aren’t alone in seeing a decrease in use. Albers participates in a weekly Zoom virtual meeting with Hunger Solutions, Second Harvest, food shelves and feeding programs throughout the state.

“Originally, up until last week Thursday (April 23), neighboring counties Kandiyohi, Sibley, Southwest Carver, Meeker were all experiencing the same trend,” she said. “Usage was down. This week (April 30) they said it was something that was recognized across the state. We all were seeing it and feeling it. I got an email from Good in the ‘Hood, they do a lot of great things in the metro area, they have seen a 300 percent increase in requests for food. It depends on where you are and how COVID is affecting your community and your direct distribution. I was curious looking across the state. It’s talked about. Not everyone is swamped at this moment. We’re preparing to be swamped. We’re all preparing to be swamped. It’s a ways out. We’re just riding the wave.”

Revermann agreed.

“... Covid-19 hasn’t affected the outskirts,” she said. “That is still to come. The metro is the hardest hit. They are reacting to that as it’s coming. Fortunately, we have a little bit of time to plan.”

SERVING SAFELY

Among the ways Meeker Area Food Shelf serves clients is through the use of a mobile site, which was launched in December and serves clients in Cosmos.

“We have clients who pre-order food and we bring it to their homes,” Revermann said. “We chose Cosmos because there wasn’t a grocery store in that town. Since the pandemic, we’ve extended to all of Meeker County. We had started it specifically in Cosmos and now we’ve opened it to anyone.”

Revermann said the food shelf is working on outreach to get the word out about the mobile site to social workers and churches.

“We want to let people know if they need food and are homebound we can get food to them,” she said. “Due to the pandemic, people want to stay home and we’re figuring out how to do that and serve people and keep them safe.”

During this time of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, the food shelves in Hutchinson and Glencoe have put their grocery list online, so clients can fill it out in advance. They are also offering proxy pickup, which means a client can have someone else pick up their groceries.

“We have a great partnership with social services and public health,” Albers said. “They have volunteered to deliver food. The client fills out the grocery list and returns it to us and we fulfill at the food shelf.”

PLANNING FOR MORE

Revermann has worked at the food shelf for more than three years. During her first year, she saw a 50 percent jump in use, which is a big increase for them.

“We serve 200-250 families a month between the two sites,” she said. “We serve about 20 in Cosmos and I don’t have the number for the expanded service to Meeker County. It has continued to go up specifically during the summer months since kids are home from school.”

While food shelf use is down now, Revermann expects that to change.

“We’re anticipating when school lunches are no longer happening and the extra money in unemployment is done in July, we’re expecting to see a huge increase,” she said.

In preparation for an uptick in usage, Albers said they’re stockpiling emergency food boxes of canned goods.

“We hope we can unpack those and put them on the shelf,” she said. “If things change, we have to change the way we distribute. We’re trying to anticipate different scenarios. It’s really hard. We don’t know when or what. We’re really trying to think through all that.”

Thanks to the Minnesota Food Share March Campaign, which was extended through April, local food shelves are ready to meet the needs of residents.

“We’re in a good spot to do more,” Albers said. “The local response has been fabulous. If people missed it or didn’t know about it, there are ways to give on our website and we’re still accepting food.”

“Our community has been really great in supporting us financially,” Revermann said. “We’ve seen less in the amount of food donated. During the March drive we focus on churches and with them being closed, we didn’t see as much food come through the door. We’re trying our best to serve people as safely as possible. If you know someone who is homebound and needs food, let us know and we’ll create a plan to get it to them.”


Education
Educating with emotional needs in mind

Getting a good education involves more than learning math and geometry equations, memorizing major moments in history or learning lines from a poem written by a 17th century author.

Emotional growth plays just as significant a role as anything that can be learned from a textbook or teacher’s assignment. In fact, sometimes it’s that emotional growth that is the first step to success in the classroom.

It’s a reality that has become even more stark as teachers and administrators adjust to distance learning in Litchfield School District and throughout the country.

Among the key topics during recent teacher team meetings, according to Superintendent Beckie Simenson, was “social and emotional learning (as well as) making sure students are fed.”

Simenson and principals from each of Litchfield School District’s three buildings shared stories of learning and reaching out to students during the April 27 School Board meeting. And, while the physical feeding of students has gone well, with nearly 800 students receiving meals, the emotional sustenance has been challenging.

And not just for students. The stress of an educational system turned upside down has affected teachers, as well.

Chelsea Brown, Litchfield Middle School principal, joined a conference call with state Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker and 10 other principals from around the state recently.

During that discussion, Ricker acknowledged “teachers are having anxiety about students falling behind,” Brown said.

Early numbers indicate that Litchfield students are staying engaged and maintaining academic success. High school Principal Jason Michels said that there were 20 to 25 fewer failing grades among high school students in the third quarter, which concluded under distance learning, than there had been during the second quarter, which was conducted in the traditional, in-person fashion.

But Michels admitted that distance learning is a challenge for many students, who miss the structure of a physical classroom and class schedule.

Teachers and administrators maintain a spreadsheet that logs communication with students and parents.

“As we go down the road, there are more kids that are not consistently engaged,” Michels said. “The documentation is there, the communication is there, but sometimes we don’t have the traction.”

The stress and uncertainty distance learning manifests itself in a variety of ways, administrator said.

Brown said she received an email last week from a fifth-grader who was concerned about the present and the future.

“Are we having school next year, Mrs. Brown?” the girl asked. Brown called the student.

“She talked to be about her cat, her goldfish,” Brown said. “You know, they’re missing us.”

It’s the kind of conversation, whether phone, email or virtual chat that teachers and administrators are having these days, simply as a means of keeping lines of communication and maintaining some normalcy, she said.

“Everyone in the building is working on trying to make sure nobody falls through the cracks,” Brown added.

Some of that effort comes in fun activities, as well. Lake Ripley Elementary Principal Chris Olson said that “it’s really fun to watch” as teachers connect with students throw Google Meet, even organizing virtual scavenger hunts.

Teachers also assembled a video of students that they planned to share with their classes, “so all the kids could see themselves and their friends and … just making sure those connections are still happening. (Teachers are) doing everything we can to keep a sense of normalcy.

“It’s been challenging, but we are definitely working through it and getting a handle on it,” Olson added.


News
top story
ACGC plans outdoor, drive-through graduation ceremony

The Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School Board met via WEBEX conference April 27 evening and decided that the Class of 2020 graduation ceremony would be an outdoor, “hybrid” event that would observe state social distancing guidelines.

The ceremony will be pushed back from its original May 8 date to allow a planning committee time to prepare for a drive-through event that would feature cap-and-gown-clad seniors riding in cars with their families, with the graduates stepping outside the vehicles to obtain their diplomas. The exact date, site and format had not been determined by press time, but Principal Robin Wall said it would probably be either May 22 or 29. School board consensus was to grant latitude to the planning committee in developing the most suitable date and local site for the event.

Superintendent Nels Onstad told the board that he had visited with about 15 other school superintendents and learned that, although larger schools are doing “virtual” Internet ceremonies, a number of districts similar in size to ACGC are planning drive-through, in-person events.

Graduating seniors have already been issued their caps and gowns and a “virtual” Internet recognition program was scheduled to be conducted Wednesday evening, April 29.

Because of construction taking place in the ACGC buildings during the 2020 construction season, the ACGC schools had opened in mid-August 2019 with the last day of classes scheduled for May 7. This means that ACGC students are just about finished with the statewide “distance learning” arrangement ordered as an emergency measure by Gov. Tim Walz last month in response to the COVID-19 epidemic.


Education
top story
New school web page aims to connect families to school, resources

The coronavirus pandemic and its spin-off effects created an abundance of questions.

Angie Wannigman and the rest of the counseling staff at Litchfield Public Schools wanted to provide as many answers as possible.

So was borne the school district’s COVID 19 Support Services website.

“We know it’s an overwhelming time,” said Wannigman, counselor at Litchfield Middle School. “There’s stress … change to everyone’s lifestyle right now. So we put together a page that would help support families in the district.”

Wanningman said the idea for the site, which can be accessed through the school district’s homepage, came from middle school Principal Chelsea Brown. During a conference call with administrators from other school districts around the state, social-emotional learning during the time of social distancing came up.

As Wanningman discussed the concerns with Brown, high school counselors Laura Nelson and Jolene Mueller, and district social worker Tammy Minton, the group saw an opportunity to connect with students and parents in the district through a web page.

“We didn’t want to have a site to just have a site,” she said. “We wanted it to be purposeful, meaningful, and not just something they can look up in a Google search. We wanted to tailor it to our families’ needs.”

They turned to the district’s parent survey to find common themes. From there, Wanningman said, she gathered ideas from Minton, a long-time district resident, and school nurse Lorie Garland about the kinds of local resources that could be included on the site, and that would be specific to Litchfield area residents.

“You know, it was great for us, because we have a community that has so many resources locally,” Wanningman said. “I don’t know if other communities can say that. It was great to highlight our community and what we’re offering.”

Those efforts turned into a site that has drawn interest at a state level, with Minnesota Edcuation Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker asking for additional information about its creation that could be shared with other districts.

“I was quite surprised, yet very honored,” Wannigman said. “It was very exciting.”

Superintendent Beckie Simenson agreed, saying that "it is really a big deal that we are being recognized for this distance learning initiative."

As much as she appreciates the recognition, however, Wannigman said the key is that the site meets the needs of parents and students in the district. And perhaps most important is the connectedness the site can build in a time when it’s easy to feel disconnected.

“What’s tricky about this time is that, with the stay-at-home order, it is challenging for our students to not be able to go out and about, to follow normal routines.

“For middle school students … in general, the connective piece, feeling a sense of belonging and connecting to people” is important, she said. “Those tangible experiences (of being in school) of a high-five, saying hi, just smiling … they’re missing those things. Video chats are good, but it’s not the same either.”

Along with links to resources, the site includes a “virtual calming space,” that shares links to stress-relieving tools like videos about relaxation, meditation and movement, as well as puzzles, games and coloring pages.

Wanningman said she’s happy with the site — which she believes could evolve and continue to be used even after the pandemic passes — and pleased with how the community can pull together to help students.

“I know that our students, they’re resilient, they’re strong kids,” she said. “They will get through this, for sure.”