By Jordan Gerard

Editor, The Caledonia Argus

It was an odd setting at the Caledonia School Board’s regular meeting on Monday, March 16. Whereas board members usually sat about a foot away from each other in a smaller room, last night they spaced themselves about six feet away in the media center, as per CDC recommendations.

The landscape and how things are changing was incredible, Superintendent Craig Ihrke said. He said two letters sent out on March 12 and March 15 looked “quite different” from each other.

The board made clear the middle school and high school building will be closed to everyone starting Wednesday, March 18, including open gym and weight room. 

Maintenance staff will be cleaning and disinfecting equipment and other surfaces. 

“We’re basically locking it down,” Facility Director Lee Morem said. “We’re doing a deep clean on the building.”

Community Education Coordinator Gretchen Linzmeier will be handling childcare for Caledonia Area Public Schools children for healthcare and emergency workers. 

This will be held at the elementary school School Age Childcare (SAC) classroom from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The cost is $2.75 per hour. Contact Linzmeier at 507-725-3316, ext. 2013 or email her at gretchen_linzmeier@cps.k12.mn.us for more information. 

The district announced on Wednesday, March 18 they will provide free meals from March 19-27 (subject to change) to all students 18 and under, including kids from St. Mary’s and St. John’s. 

 That plan also includes Schmitz Bus Company pitching in to carry meals to Brownsville, Freeburg and Eitzen. 

In the bag, students will find it’s two meals in one. Meals include a sandwich, fruit, vegetable and milk and then breakfast items including a grain, cheese stick, fruit and juice or milk. 

School Nutrition Director Rita McCormick said it’s not what they had planned but she’s always up for a challenge.

“I know we have kids that need food,” she said, “and the way our grocery store shelves are right now I think it’s even more important.”

McCormick and her food service staff prepared 300 meals to serve students in Caledonia, Brownsville, Eitzen and Freeburg. 

About 27% of Caledonia School District’s kids are free and reduced lunch. Typically during the summer meal program, the staff serves anywhere from 100-150 meals. This program is funded like the Summer Food Service Program through Federal funding from US Department of Agriculture, she added. 

“It helps that we’ve had the summer program before. We were kind of prepped for the basics,” McCormick added. “We’ve had enough help staff-wise that have come in.”

The lunches start at 11 a.m. and go until 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. All that’s needed is pulling up to the tent in the elementary school parking lot, signaling how many lunches you need and receiving it through your car window.

“People aren’t able to go to work. There’s a lot of unknowns out there,” she said. “Help is essential.”

On the first day of the lunch program, McCormick said they served 120 breakfasts and lunches at the elementary school. In Brownsville, 42 of each were served and 40 of each were served in Eitzen. McCormick thanked the district’s dairy provider WWHomestead Dairy out of Waukon, that worked with the school to get bottles in order to use up bulk milk.

It was the fastest way to get children fed during this emergency situation with no added costs to districts or communities. 

Questions about the free meals can be directed to McCormick at rita_mccormick@cps.k12.mn.us or call the school at 507-725-5205.

Superintendent Craig Ihrke clarified the time period specified by Gov. Tim Walz’s order to temporarily close schools was a time for districts and teachers to prepare  for distance learning. 

New instruction should not start until after March 30, as per the governor’s orders. That also ensures equitable learning among all students.

Ihrke added students can review topics they’ve already learned, and that the district was “not going to stop kids from doing anything like that.” 

“It’s a great gift of time that they’ve given the schools,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to have better distance learning.”

Though districts were required to close by Wednesday, March 18, Caledonia and other schools chose to close earlier. Monday and Tuesday allowed students to come and get materials from lockers, gym clothes, devices, chargers and other things they need over the eight-day break and potentially longer.

If a distance learning policy was implemented, it would be similar to e-learning on snow days, the district said in a letter dated March 15. 

“I am very thankful we made the decision not to have students today and tomorrow,” Ihrke told board members last Monday. “One of those reasons is selfish, but we can take some time and talk and get our ducks in a row.”

The district said in a letter on March 15 they anticipate teaching and learning to resume on March 30, but that was dependent upon guidance from the governor. 

Interim Elementary Principal Sue Link said parents told her the district was wise to close, as it gave them more social distancing. 

So far, social distancing has consisted of the cancellation or postponement of all events, including “Bye Bye Birdie,” spring sport seasons, community events and school events.

Staff with compromised immune systems were asked to work remotely as much as possible.

Board chair Kelley McGraw re-iterated how lucky the district is with the staff. 

“We have an absolutely incredible staff,” he said. “They’re not looking at what the contract says, they’re saying ‘How can we help?’”

He added families should prepare that school is not going to be normal and things may have to be re-scheduled in the summer. 

“We’re looking at who’s going to fall through the cracks and what we can do to prevent that,” McGraw added. “It’s going to be an incredibly hard time ... We’re going to decide what’s right, not popular.”

Board members praised the community for its support and understanding. 

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