Minnesota may have been ahead of many states in preparing for distance learning, but rural school districts, in particular, have challenges in the stay-at-home, learn-at-home era that is the COVID-19 pandemic.
That was among the messages delivered Monday when U.S. Rep. Angie Craig hosted a virtual meeting with community leaders in Minnesota’s 2nd District.
The impact of COVID-19 on schools and hospitals was a commonly discussed topic during the Zoom meeting.
Bill Ihrke, the superintendent of the Plainview-Elgin-Millville School District, told Craig that about some challenges in his district transitioning from classroom to online learning.
“We had some growing pains in terms of the technology platforms. I think they weren’t set up for just the massive use that we suddenly had with all of our kids. But, day by day it’s gotten better," he said.
Stacy Schultz, the principal of Wabasha-Kellogg K-12 School, echoed Ihrke’s comments about the difficulty of transitioning teaching from physical classrooms to online platforms. She also added that her school has faced challenges due to the lack of internet accessibility.
“Internet connection out here in the hills and the valleys of our area here has been difficult for some of our teachers and our students. So our local cable company has been great, but those people who are beyond that reach, again, is a huge need,” Schultz told Craig.
Local hospitals and care providers are also being challenged by the lack of broadband in southeastern Minnesota.
Clinic manager at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Sue Stiene explained that most primary care visits are now virtual check-ins or phone visits. Like local educators, health care providers are finding that the' internet is not as accessible as they would like. And, even if all of their patients had broadband access. it would not solve all of the problems.
“We have a high number of elderly patients who don’t have that technology that we can utilize. So, it makes it a little tough," she said.
Stiene suggested that allowing telehealth visits to be conducted by phone would help the hospital and numerous other health care providers. Currently visits must have an audio and visual component for the provider to be reimbursed for the meeting. But, many patients in the region only have phone accessibility.
Along with internet access challenges, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital has a shortage in supplies.
“We’re not comfortably stocked by any means, I’m sure you’ve heard that over and over again,” Stiene told the congresswoman.
The CEO of Northfield Hospital, Steve Underdahl, told Craig and those on the call that Northfield Hospital is OK but it is feeling the economic pain from the coronavirus.
“Just in my little medical center we’re burning through about $1 million a week,” Underdahl said.
Underdahl explained that the hospital has historically worked to save money so there are some reserves. “But it doesn’t take long at a million dollars a week to get to a place that isn’t sustainable.”
Craig stressed during the meeting that she understands the need for internet access throughout the Second Congressional District. She stated, “I am certainly prioritizing a huge investment in broadband through this next spending bill.”