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'Kindergartners are huggers': A teacher stays connected in a virtual classroom

MOORHEAD, Minn. — What Karla Brewster has missed most is standing at her classroom door at Robert Asp Elementary in Moorhead, greeting her 25 kindergartners every morning, and saying goodbye to them every afternoon.

“I always had a policy: You can give me a high five, you can give me a fist bump, or you can give me a hug,” she said. “And most of them hug because they’re 5 and 6. So that’s the hardest, just being physically away from them, because I just love them, I really do.”

Minnesota schools moved to distance learning in March, and will end this year with students and teachers separated: No last-day field trips or end-of-the-year pizza parties in the classroom.

For many teachers like Brewster, losing physical contact with students is the hardest part of distance learning.

“I am sure every teacher misses the children. If you ask anybody, they’d say that,” said Brewster. “We’ve worked really hard on this plan for distance learning, but not being with the kids — that kind of leaves a hole.”

Brewster believes connecting with students is essential to effective teaching.

“The thing that I’ve learned in my 38 years of teaching is that teaching isn’t really about delivering finely crafted curriculum or teaching perfect lessons,” Brewster said.

“Teaching really is developing relationships. And once you have those relationships, they’re sucked in and they will just learn for you because they know that you care about them and they care about you.”

Often, those relationships are lasting.

“I have fourth graders whose parents have messaged me and said, ‘So-and-so has missed seeing you at school so much.’ Well, that child was in my room five years ago. I mean, that connection is everything. If you have that connection, you can really teach them,” she said.

Brewster has been doing what she can to maintain that connection with her kindergartners. Earlier this month, she received permission from the school district to deliver May Day baskets — with books and pencils and bookmarks — to the homes of all 25 students.

And one little girl missed her teacher so much that her grandparents arranged to meet Brewster in a nearby parking lot, just to say hello.

But they couldn’t hug. “So I had pulled out this huge piece of plastic and I said, ‘We can hug with this plastic!’ And we did. It was really nice,” Brewster said.

“Because: Kindergartners are huggers.”

Even if, in a pandemic, you’ve got to wrap them in plastic to do it.

The transition to a virtual classroom hasn’t been easy for Brewster or her students, but she said the 5- and 6-year-olds are starting to find connections through regular video chats.

“The first few that we did, they would just stare at the screen. They wouldn’t respond, it was just like, ‘There’s my teacher.’ But it’s really changed over time,” she said. “I had a little boy last night, he’s kind of sitting back in the easy chair and he just put his hand right on the screen like he wanted to touch me. And then he started to giggle, well when we heard that giggle in the classroom, that was golden, and, so you know, it’s not the same, but it’s kind of evolving.”

And it’s not just students who are adapting to distance learning, said Brewster. She’s seen relationships among her fellow teachers grow stronger — and has seen teachers forge more meaningful relationships with parents, because they are regularly encouraging parents as they take on an expanded role required by distance learning.

Brewster said that, while the end of the school year won’t be normal, she’s promised her students that when it’s safe for them to get together, she’ll throw a pizza party — even if it’s next year.

And even though she’s planning to retire when this school year is over, she won’t be far: She’s also planning to return to the classroom — virtual or otherwise — as a substitute teacher next year.


Older Minnesotans sheltering at home need help, volunteers step up

ST. PAUL — When the coronavirus pandemic hit, LeVearne Hagen, who works as a Head Start teacher in Duluth, found she could telecommute. She gained a little more free time for errands to help others.

“I can go do that at 9 o’clock and still go back and finish my work as well. And I just wanted the purpose to do something,” said Hagen. “It’s such a blessing to do that, to serve.”

Because the new coronavirus is especially dangerous for older adults and those with underlying health conditions, the need for services for those stuck in their homes has increased. Several nonprofits say volunteers have come forward in greater numbers as well.

At the Wilder Community Center for Aging in St. Paul, the Meals on Wheels program has had more calls for service. The program used to serve about 70 people, now it serves well over 100.

“Normally I’ll have maybe somewhere between five or 10 people in a month” instead of 30, said Christine Miller, who runs the program at the Wilder Center. The extra volunteers came at the right time.

“Whether it was a health risk or age, we had a lot of people (for whom) suddenly it wasn’t safe to go out and deliver meals,” she said.

Miller said they deliver frozen meals instead of hot and use “contactless” drop-off. Some volunteers help fight isolation by calling and checking in on those receiving the food.

Volunteers with the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project have been hard at work, helping to put out COVID-19 information in different languages and culturally nuanced formats. Teams have also been sewing face masks and making travel-size hand sanitizers and other items to be given out in the community.

“There’s a lot of shared humanity, especially in a time of pain and uncertainty,” said Chanida Phaengdara Potter, the director and community architect for the nonprofit. She said people should look out for neighbors, particularly Asian Americans, who face heightened discrimination.

“I think it’s a great lesson for all of us right now about what community means and how we care for each other and how we need to nurture young people in this work, too,” she said.

Age Well Arrowhead in Duluth, where Hagen volunteers, had to stop their driving services and in-person companionship visits, so their grocery service has become the main way to stay in touch.

“When we started focusing on grocery shopping, we actually saw many more older adults in our region start to call and sign up for it because they either don’t have their own family members able to shop for them or they no longer were comfortable leaving their home,” said Peter Hafften, volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit. While they used to shop for 30 or so people a week, now they are up around 70.

Hafften said there’s been so much interest — the number of volunteers has nearly doubled — that signing people up has become a bigger job.

“It’s pretty incredible to just have people day in and day out offering their own time to come and help shop for seniors,” Hafften said.

He anticipates that as the state begins to go back to work, he’ll lose volunteers, so he signs people up even if he may not have a job for them right away.

In late March, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson started Northstar Neighbor, which pairs seniors as well as those with health issues with someone to shop for them and more.

Leah Koch of West St. Paul is one of the volunteers for Northstar Neighbor. She visits a food shelf for a man in his 60s, and she checks in on him by phone and text.

“The idea of being connected to someone geographically close to me that I can run a few errands for was an easy yes for me,” Koch said. “It sort of opened my eyes towards the fact that — yes, this is a desperate time for many people, but also there are so many needs that were being unmet before this pandemic hit as well.“


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No new COVID-19 cases, deaths in Winona County for sixth consecutive day

Winona County is quickly approaching a week of no new COVID-19 cases or deaths confirmed, as the sixth consecutive day was reported Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health.

The county’s totals remain at 75 positive COVID-19 cases with 15 having died.

In Minnesota, 18,200 of 173,556 COVID-19 tests have come back positive.

Of these residents who have received positive results, 12,488 no longer need to be in isolation and 809 have died.

Statewide, 2,380 patients have required hospitalization, with 566 remaining in hospitals Thursday.

For daily Minnesota COVID-19 situation updates, visit the Minnesota Department of Health’s website.

Databank: Maps and more you can use to track COVID-19 spread

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Maskless Trump visits state

YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Pandemic politics shadowed President Donald Trump’s trip to Michigan on Thursday to highlight lifesaving medical devices, with the president and officials from the electoral battleground state clashing over federal aid, mail-in ballots and face masks.

Trump visited Ypsilanti, outside Detroit, to tour a Ford Motor Co. factory that had been repurposed to manufacture ventilators, the medical breathing machines governors begged for during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But his arrival came amid a long-running feud with the state’s Democratic governor and a day after the president threatened to withhold federal funds over the state’s expanded vote-by-mail effort. And, again, the president did not wear a face covering despite a warning from the state’s top law enforcement officer that a refusal to do so might lead to a ban on Trump’’s return.

Also Thursday, signs of renewed activity are surfacing across the country as states gradually reopen economies and some businesses call a portion of their laid-off staffers back to work. Yet with millions more Americans seeking unemployment aid last week, the U.S. job market remains as bleak as it’s been in decades.

More than 2.4 million laid-off workers filed for jobless benefits last week, the government said Thursday, the ninth straight week of outsize figures since the viral outbreak forced millions of businesses to closer their doors and shrink their workforces.

And while the number of weekly applications has slowed for seven straight weeks, they remain immense by any historical standard — roughly 10 times the typical figure that prevailed before the virus struck. Nearly 39 million people have applied for benefits since mid-March.

An additional 1.2 million people sought aid last week under a new federal program for self-employed, contractor and gig workers, who are now eligible for jobless aid for the first time. These figures aren’t adjusted for seasonal variations, so the government doesn’t include them in the overall number of applications.

In Michigan, state Attorney General Dana Nessel said that mask wearing isn’t just Ford’s policy but it’s also the law in a state that’s among those hardest hit by the virus. Nessel said that if Trump refused to wear a mask Thursday “he’s going to be asked not to return to any enclosed facilities inside our state.”

“If we know that he’s coming to our state and we know he’s not going to follow the law, I think we’re going to have to take action against any company or any facility that allows him inside those facilities and puts our workers at risk,” Nessel told CNN. “We just simply can’t afford it here in our state.”

Trump has refused to wear a face mask in public, telling aides he believes it makes him look weak, though it is a practice that federal health authorities say all Americans should adopt to help slow the spread of the virus.

“I don’t know, we’ll look at it,” Trump said when asked before leaving if he would wear one.

But he did not sport one at the day’s first stop, a roundtable discussion with workers and African American supporters.

Ford said everyone in its factories must wear personal protective equipment, including masks, and that its policy has been communicated to the White House. At least two people who work in the White House and had been physically close to Trump recently tested positive for the virus. Trump is tested daily; he said Thursday he tested negative that morning.

An executive order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requires factories to suspend all nonessential in-person visits, including tours, though Nessel said her office would not bar Trump.

The Republican president and Whitmer have clashed during the coronavirus outbreak over her criticism of the federal government’s response to the state’s needs for medical equipment, like ventilators, and personal protective gear, such as gloves, masks and gowns.

On Wednesday, Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from Michigan after its secretary of state mailed absentee ballot applications to millions of voters. Trump first tweeted — erroneously — that the Democratic state official had mailed absentee ballots to Michigan voters. He later sent a corrected tweet specifying that applications to request absentee ballots had been mailed and seemed to back off his funding threat.

Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016. He insists mail-in voting is ripe for fraud, although there is scant evidence of wrongdoing.

Earlier, Trump on Thursday said he met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at the White House to discuss the next steps on an aid package.

At least one Republican, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, pledged to try to prevent the Senate from recessing unless it votes on more aid, particularly to states and cities facing layoffs.

McConnell argued that his side of the Capitol led passage of an earlier package that cost $2 trillion. It’s better to assess how that money is being spent, he said, before approving more. He rejects the new $3 trillion package approved by the Democratic-led House last week as a “liberal wish list.”

Over 5 million people worldwide have been confirmed infected, and about 330,000 deaths have been recorded, including more than 93,000 in the U.S., according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.