Briana Joseph and Claire Nemmers were facing a Fairmont High School girls tennis season in flux thanks to COVID-19.
So when their coach urged them to “focus on what we can control,” Joseph said, the teammates hit on an idea: Create a video to win over a largely skeptical Martin County community and encourage it to start masking up.
In just a few days, more than 30 students produced an upbeat video aimed at persuading mask-resistant neighbors to cover their faces to not only slow the spread of COVID-19 but help get kids back to their classrooms, ball fields and tennis courts.
“We wanted it to be positive, especially since the county, the state and the whole country is divided,” said Joseph, a junior who also serves as a student representative on the school board. “These kind of issues shouldn’t be that controversial. Unfortunately, it is.”
Nemmers, also a junior, said the intent of their message was “that everyone’s actions can affect others. But we wanted it to be positive.”
Nine months into the COVID-19 crisis and with case numbers exploding statewide, health officials acknowledge it is getting tougher to convince a pandemic-weary public to keep wearing masks and maintain social distancing.
Much of the Fairmont High video features masked students respectfully asking community members to wear masks to preserve their sports seasons and keep them safe. In delivering that message, the video features distance high-fives, mask-averse dogs and members of the girls tennis team perched on playground equipment.
The video was produced with a gentle and a deft touch, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
“It is really encouraging to see students taking a stand about the importance of following the mitigation guidance — wearing masks, avoiding crowds, and social distancing. What was great is that it wasn’t health officials, like me, asking people to mask, avoid crowds and social distance — it was the students!” Ehresmann said in an e-mail. “And their message was compelling — they want to be able to be in person in school and participate in sports that they worked so hard to train for … If that doesn’t motivate the adults in their community, I don’t know what will!”
Masks have been a hard sell in Martin County, which had one of the state’s highest COVID-19 infection rates, according to Minnesota Department of Health statistics. Some officials acknowledge that there is an almost ingrained opposition by community members in being told what to do. Which is why the students’ video hit just the right tone, Fairmont Mayor Deb Foster said.
“We need to listen very carefully, because the young people are doing it in the right way,” said Foster, who has been mayor of the southern Minnesota city of 10,000 residents for four years. “By wearing a mask, you’re not making a political statement. You’re simply doing what the young people are asking us to do so they could go back to school.”
Fairmont Superintendent Joe Brown said that at one point, Martin County had the second highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in Minnesota. That wasn’t because of students, Brown said. Officials traced outbreaks to two large funerals “and a couple of good-sized weddings,” he said.
As a result, the Fairmont school district shifted entirely to districtwide distance learning. Joseph said she remembers deciding to make the video on Sept. 23, in the midst of a homecoming week that felt nothing like it should.
In the first few weeks after the video was created, officials said there wasn’t much evidence that it had made much of a difference. Brown’s early morning stops for coffee at Kwik Trip still showed plenty of mask-less customers. But over the past several weeks, that’s changed — and case numbers in the county have been plunging.
According to state health department statistics, Martin County’s 14-day case rate per 10,000 people has fallen from more than 93 cases in mid-September to less than 32 by late October. As a result, Brown said, the high school is now using a hybrid learning model with students attending classes in person two days a week.
Elementary students continue to participate in classes remotely.
Coach Laura Olsen’s girls tennis team has played several matches this fall. The football team has played a few games, too, as has the volleyball squad.
“We just have great kids, honest-to-God great kids,” Brown said. “I’m really proud of them.”
Brown said neither teachers nor school administrators had a hand in the video. He first saw it after Gov. Tim Walz retweeted it earlier this fall. It was later sent on to the state’s superintendent association, Brown said.
John Kesselring, a teacher and assistant varsity football coach, moved to Fairmont from Iowa with his wife in 2017. Fairmont and Martin County residents, he said, are “really, really good people. But [COVID] can turn people divisive and turn a community upside down. The kids wanted to help repair that.”
After a summer of wearing masks and working in small pods and experiencing no infections while training for their sports seasons, Kesselring said students knew that if they could convince their neighbors to “mask up,” they had a chance to salvage their school year and their athletic schedules.
“We try to empower our kids here. When they saw what was happening, they said ‘What can we do to help?’ ” Kesselring said. “They took the initiative. They decided to lead by example. And at the end of the day, the people [of Martin County] kind of refocused, too.”