COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of two Itasca County residents, according to Kelly Chandler, Itasca County Public Health department manager. Further details regarding the deaths are limited at this time in respect to their families. Chandler said that both were male - one in his 80s and the other in his 90s.

“This is news we hoped we’d never hear in Itasca County. We grieve with those whose loved ones have been taken from them by this devastating virus,” said Chandler. “Hundreds of us are working every day in our local communities to minimize spread, and certainly to fight for those who are impacted. These are our family members, neighbors, friends, sometimes ourselves.”

Itasca County also saw a rise in laboratory-confirmed cases to at least 40 over the weekend, said Chandler, with more tests in process. The Minnesota Department of Health website will reflect numbers in the 30’s for Itasca County positive cases.

MDH will continue to update their database throughout the week with the remaining laboratory confirmed cases. The ages of those testing positive in Itasca County so far range from teens to 90s.

Symptoms of COVID-19 for some may be mild. Some persons with the virus may not show symptoms at all. However, in persons with underlying health conditions, contracting the virus can be serious or even cause death. If you are sick, the Minnesota Department of Health has helpful tools at their website: https://mn.gov/covid19/for-minnesotans/if-sick/index.jsp. Clinics and hospitals in Bigfork, Deer River and Grand Rapids all are available to provide tests for COVID-19, although call ahead for guidance.

Many positive local cases are in congregate care settings.

“Grand Itasca continues to work with the Minnesota Department of Health to test and retest, when recommended, residents and staff in congregate living settings,” said Jean MacDonell, President & CEO, Grand Itasca Clinic & Hospital. Grand Itasca has completed more than 500 tests at its campus. “We understand that an individual can contract COVID-19 2-14 days after they are exposed, so we certainly understand the need to provide testing on an ongoing basis. In partnership with other area clinics and hospitals, we’ll continue to support our community partners for all their needs, testing being just one of them.”

Itasca County’s enhanced Call Center now provides live staffing every day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at 218-327-6784 for those with COVID-related issues and needs.

Area graduations

On Friday, Governor Walz announced guidance for spring 2020 graduations, prohibiting ceremonies indoors or in stadiums. Minnesota Department of Education’s top guidance is to conduct virtual ceremonies, meanwhile offering guidance on some alternatives (details are at MDE’s website or at https://tinyurl.com/MNGraduation). All Itasca area schools are fine-tuning their plans given this new guidance, looking to honor graduating seniors while keeping communities safe.

According to Matt Grose, Administrative Committee chair of the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative (IASC), “Many districts had graduation ceremonies planned based on previous guidance and last Friday’s announcement by the state has required a pivot, and in some cases, going back to the drawing board.”

On Tuesday, Itasca County area school superintendents participated in a virtual media briefing regarding their efforts to help students and their families adjust to life amid the pandemic.

Grand Rapids and Bigfork Superintendent Sean Martinson said while this is a difficult time to find positives, district staff continue to provide education, meals, mental health support and love for students.

Martinson said families can reach out to teachers and administrators to request help.

“We’re working hard to make sure kids will be safe to return in the fall,” said Martinson.

In regard to requesting mental health services, Martinson said, “There’s this stigma with mental health and with Minnesota nice that we’re all OK. We need families to reach out and ask and realize they need it.”

Independent School District 318 has a link to information about requesting mental health services or help with distant learning. That link online is https://sites.google.com/isd318.org/318-and-covid-19/other-resources.

“We’re very grateful for staff who’ve stepped up in ways they’ve never been asked to before by providing food, child care and more,” said Grose who serves as superintendent for both Deer River and Nashwauk-Keewatin schools. Grose continued to explain that his districts are showing grace to students regarding their grading policies.

Hill City/Northland Remer Superintendent Pat Rendle added that the IASC leaders work closely together on these issues. The staff at his smaller schools have worked diligently to be in contact with families.

“The No. 1 goal is to keep engagement, keep kids fed and in good mental health,” said Rendle.

Itasca area school plans for graduation so far include:

Bigfork (May 30) - Bigfork School will be hosting graduation in a drive-up ceremony where graduates will have the opportunity to cross the stage and receive their diplomas before immediate family. The Valedictorian and Salutatorian speeches will be included in the ceremony. The ceremony will be streamed live on Facebook.

Deer River Warriors (May 31) – Plans are underway for a drive-up/through graduation ceremony. Seniors are involved in creating the celebration with their community.

Grand Rapids Thunderhawks (May 29) – GRHS will host a parking lot ceremony in which small groups of students will walk and receive their diplomas in front of immediate family. Student speeches and the presentation of the graduates will be delivered electronically. The ceremony will be streamed live on Facebook.

Greenway Raiders (May 30) - Plans are under way for a drive-through graduation. Expectations are that graduation speakers will be live, with students receiving diplomas during the drive-through portion. A virtual program will be sent out following the drive-through ceremony.

Hill City Hornets (May 29) – Hill City will be taking graduation to the grads. A brief ceremony will be conducted at each senior’s home, followed by the presentation for each senior of a swag bag stuffed with many donated items.

Itasca Community College (May 11 - 14) – Recognizing that graduation is an important college tradition and a milestone in recognizing student accomplishments, the college is conducting a “traditional large graduation” via ZOOM broadcast on May 14 at 5 p.m., plus graduation ceremonies by program throughout the week. ICC has provided its graduates free caps and gowns for the ceremonies.

Nashwauk-Keewatin Spartans (May 30) – A drive-up/thru graduation is in the works that meets safety requirements. Seniors are collaborating in the planning.

Northland Community Schools Eagles (May 29) – The Northland School Board is meeting this week to reconsider the traditional ceremony they had planned. Stay tuned for adaptations.

Watch area media for special programming, including commencement speeches, lists of graduating seniors, grad profiles and more.

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