Planning to continue for limited summer Parks & Rec youth programming

Mike Christopherson

The Crookston Park Board on Monday evening gave Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle and his staff the go-ahead to continue planning for limited summer programming for kids that would commence on July 6 and end on Aug. 7 and meet the state's required social distancing guidelines. 

But there is much planning to do and many details to work out in a limited amount of time. Riopelle seemed to have a general idea in his mind regarding a skills-based approach in all kinds of sports - no competitive games are allowed - for boys and girls ages 7 to 14 broken into four age groups on four fields that would take place Monday through Thursday in the mornings, with two groups going Mondays and Wednesdays and the other two going Tuesdays and Thursdays. The kids would be in pods numbering no more than 24, in accordance with social distancing guidelines. 

But after a freewheeling discussion between Riopelle, Parks & Rec Administrative Assistant Andrea Prudhomme, Park Board members and a quartet of parents in attendance - two representing families who live in Fisher - all kinds of possibilities are potentially in play.

In the wake of that discussion, there are numerous questions to answer.

Will parent volunteers play a vital role, in addition to the few City staff that would be needed, either currently on staff or to be hired, to conduct the limited programming? Could there be an option in the evenings if it turns out that's more convenient than mornings? Will registration be capped, or will more kids be able to sign up if more paid staff and parent volunteers are involved? Will the skills development be for all kinds of activities like tennis and soccer, or will it be mostly focused on the most popular summer activities for boys and girls, baseball and softball? Will boys and girls be grouped together, or will they be kept separate?

Riopelle said he'd look into all of it. Lacia Hanson, heavily involved in Pirate and youth softball for years, said she'd be willing to volunteer, and she said she'd also reach out to current players and Pirate alumni who might want to help out. Fellow mom BriAnna Kappelhoff indicated that she'd be willing to help out, too, possibly, even if it involved the unpleasant task of disinfecting a portable restroom every hour, as required by the Centers for Disease Control during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s likely that when the Crookston City Council next meets on Monday, June 22, Riopelle will have further updates on various issues that have been ironed out or otherwise specified over the remainder of this week. If the goal is to have some type of scaled-back programming commence on July 6, he said there is no time to waste when it comes to identifying staff or potential staff, seeing how many parents might be willing to volunteer, and, most importantly, determining how many kids would sign up.

Decided early

Although Crookston’s Park & Recreation programs and processes and configuration differ somewhat and even significantly from what cities like Thief River Falls and East Grand Forks do - the Times explored those differences last week - perhaps the most impactful difference during the pandemic this spring was the City of Crookston’s decision in May to cancel all summer Parks & Rec programming. Riopelle has said and he reiterated at the Park Board meeting that the decision was made earlier than other cities because the City wanted to give the 50 to 60 people hired for a typical summer, many of them young people looking for part-time summer jobs, time to secure other summer employment.

But since the decision was made, the State of Minnesota has entered “Phase III” of its reopening process in the wake of a couple months of stay-at-home orders, giving communities a bit more flexibility when it comes to summer youth recreational programs they’re able to offer. As a result, some “private” or otherwise unrelated groups or organizations not affiliated with the City of Crookston - and also in other communities not affiliated with their municipalities - are starting up programs based mostly on practices and skill development. Local boys in the Babe Ruth baseball age group have been organized, and prep-level baseball players are set to get together Wednesday for the first time this summer. In addition, a strength and conditioning program at Crookston High School for seventh through twelfth graders is getting underway Monday evening.

Over the past week-and-a-half or so, a vocal group of Crookston parents has taken to social media and a couple attended a city council meeting to urge the Parks & Recreation Department to come up with some sort of programming for the summer. Riopelle said last week that he and City staff were starting to look into doing just that.

“I appreciate your efforts to put something together,” said Katie Brockpahler. “We’re all in a tough spot and this is probably our best option this year.”

Even if this summer’s programs only end up taking place on staggered days for rotating age groups for only 90 minutes a session, Kappelhoff said the City should prepare for a lot of interest. “I think the whole town of Crookston will come out to be in something because there’s nothing else here right now,” she said.

Riopelle cautioned that parents or anyone who organizes any type of summer youth programming - including the City - has to have a “preparedness plan” in place beforehand. It could involve actual temperature screening when kids arrive for a session, he explained, or maybe something as simple as being on the lookout for anyone who arrives looking less than 100% healthy. In addition, Riopelle said, if a child gets sick during a session, he or she will need to be identified and brought to a required “staging area” to be monitored until a parent or other adult caregiver is summoned to pick the child up. All of this will require staff training, he added.

Continuing to strike a cautious tone, Riopelle said whatever program ends up taking shape this summer, the budget will play a significant role. Some reductions have been made, he said, with the pandemic in mind and the likelihood that forthcoming budgets will be especially tight.

Park Board member Mike LaFrance echoed those sentiments. “We’re taking a more conservative approach and maybe not making promises we can’t keep,” he said of the summer programming discussion. “…We want to make it safe for the kids while they also have some fun.”

“Kids just want something to do, to have some fun,” Mayor Dale Stainbrook added. “I understand the frustration all around with social distancing and all that, and we won’t have all of our programming, which is a bummer. But we don’t have the personnel to fit every program we have. This is a hybrid. We’ll try to make it work as best as possible.”