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Bills from local lawmakers would limit classroom screen use for youngest learners

Two local legislators have introduced bills in the Minnesota House and Senate that would limit how much time young students can spend on screens during the school day.

State Rep. Kelly Morrison, D-Deephaven, and state Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, D-Eden Prairie, introduced sibling bills that would mandate preschool and kindergarten students not use an individual-use screen, like a smartphone or tablet, “without engagement from a teacher or other students,” the bills say.

“It’s easier to give a child a screen because it’s so captivating,” Morrison told Southwest News Media in a phone interview on March 13. “We need them to be asking us questions and looking at the world and moving their bodies.”

A plea from constituents Judy Stoffel and Lisa Venable inspired Cwodzinski and Morrison to author the bills, the legislators said. It was an easy sell for the pair: Morrison is a physician and Cwodzinski taught high school civics.

“It’s something I’ve been hounding for 15 years now,” Cwodzinski said. “They were preaching to the choir.”

Research has shown that while watching or interacting with a screen can entertain children of all ages, children younger than 4 don’t learn from what they see on the screen, said Allison Jessee, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of St. Thomas.

“These things are massively rewarding for our brains,” and there’s not much else in life that mimics that experience, Jessee said. “There’s a concern that we’re wiring our kids’ brains in a way that’s not consistent with how we interact in the real world.”

Additionally, the structure of many TV shows aimed at young children involve conflict for much of an episode, followed by a few minutes of resolution and lesson-learning. While older children may be able to take away the intended messages from the end, children under 4 “just see 25 minutes of kids being mean to each other,” Jessee said. One way to counteract that is for parents to watch a TV show with their child and comment on the positive or negative behaviors they observe.

It’s difficult to research how technology affects young learners’ brains, in part because it changes so rapidly.

“By the time your research study comes out a year later, nobody’s using (that technology) anymore,” Jessee explained.

With that lack of research in mind, “conducting this massive public health experiment with our youngest learners seems risky,” Morrison said.

The problem isn’t the technology itself, the lawmakers and Jessee agree: it’s the overuse of smartphones, computers and tablets that can result in a child “distancing yourself from relationships and eye contact and learning those social skills,” Cwodzinski said. Using a smartphone to video chat a relative in another part of the world is vastly different than watching hours of YouTube videos, he said.

“Obviously they’re an invaluable resource in the 21st century,” he added. “The problem is our over-reliance on them at the cost of relationships.”

The bills’ modest scopes come from Morrison and Cwodzinski’s cautious approach in a bonding, rather than budget, year at the Legislature. They could come back to the issue with more energy in the fall session, Morrison said, and she hopes to hold a town hall on the topic after the COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis ends.

On March 13, Morrison was hopeful that her bill on what she sees as a nonpartisan issue would be passed this session, but that was before the Legislature transitioned to largely remote and out-of-office work on March 16. Lawmakers will come to the Capitol on a need-to-vote basis to pass pandemic-related legislation for the 30 days after March 16, the Legislature announced.

“We have to limit our goals,” Morrison acknowledged on March 13.

Cwodzinski also noted the need to take small steps around this issue.

“No one wants to be accused of fostering the nanny state,” he said.

The bills also call for an education campaign, run by the Minnesota Department of Education, that would inform parents of screen-use guidelines from the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics (one hour maximum for children ages 2-5) and technology’s effects on early childhood brain development, the bills say. That piece of the puzzle is vital because children learn from their parents’ behavior with phones, computers and television, Morrison said.

“We are all guilty of it and a lot of us are leading by bad example,” she observed. “You have to be a little bit counter-cultural.”


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Gov. Walz closes bars and restaurants to the public, except for delivery and curbside pickup (copy) (copy)

Tim Walz

Bars, restaurants and other places of “public amusement,” such as theaters, fitness centers and museums, in Minnesota are closed to the public following an order by Gov. Tim Walz on Monday.

“We need to stop congregating, we’re going to close the bars, we’re going to close the restaurants, we’re going to close the places that we are gathering,” Walz said in a news conference March 16 announcing two additional Executive Orders he signed.

Executive Order 20-04, which Walz signed Monday, temporarily closed restaurants and bars to dine-in customers starting no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday until 5 p.m. on March 27.

Restaurants, bars and other establishments affected by this temporary closure are encouraged to offer curbside takeout, delivery, drive-through service, etc., the order says. And officials are encouraging grocery stores, pharmacies and other establishments that offer essential goods and services to remain open, while following recommendations from health officials.

“... We need to take these temporary actions to flatten the outbreak curve, so we can avoid stretching our health care system too much,” Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement.

Walz announced the temporary closures after the number of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota surpassed 50 and a day after the state reported its first three cases of community transmission of the virus. As of March 17, the number of positive cases in Minnesota reached 60, including more than 20 in Hennepin County.

“As the cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota continue to climb, we must take decisive action to curb the spread of this pandemic and protect the health and safety of Minnesotans,” Walz said in a statement. “This is a challenging time for business owners, employees, children and families alike. We must come together as One Minnesota to care for our neighbors and slow the spread of COVID-19.”

At the March 16 news conference, celebrity chef and restaurant owner Andrew Zimmern said “we cannot pretend this real-world crisis is not happening,” adding closing restaurants and bars is the “right thing to do” to help flatten the curve.

Zimmern shared his concerns about the families affected by these closures, noting the “harsh reality” is that some establishments won’t be able to reopen once the temporary closure is over.

The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), which represents the state’s small, family-owned bars and restaurants, also shared its concerns in a statement on March 16, urging the government to help.

“Unfortunately, bars, restaurants and employees are now left with a devastating situation with little income and continued expenses and obligations. Some restaurants and bars will not survive closure without immediate and decisive action from the government,” MLBA Executive Director Tony Chesak said in a statement.

Prior to the governor’s announcement, some entertainment venues, such as Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and Nickelodeon Universe at Mall of America, and some restaurants had already made the decision to temporarily close. Meanwhile, in the hours after Walz issued the order, restaurants and breweries in the area that did not previously offer takeout and delivery began releasing their plans to offer one or both in the wake of the temporary closure.

In an email to patrons, Boom Island Brewery in Minnetonka said it is offering order ahead with curbside pickup service daily — they’ll tell you when your order will be ready, and someone will meet you outside. Unmapped Brewing Co. in Minnetonka posted on Instagram similar plans to offer off-sale beers while the taproom is closed, and Fat Pants Brewery in Eden Prairie said it will move to online ordering for takeout, delivery and curbside pickup — for food and growlers of beer.

Other local establishments, such as Lord Fletcher’s Old Lake Lodge in Spring Park, McCormick’s Pub and Restaurant in Wayzata and Red Rooster in Long Lake said they’ll be temporarily closing their doors during the outbreak.

“Crazy times. We will miss you all during this hiatus. We at Lord Fletcher’s will take this time to prepare ourselves to celebrate with you when we are reunited. Until then, stay safe and God bless,” Fletcher’s said in a Facebook post, which garnered comments from patrons stating their excitement for the grand reopening party.

In the wake of this news that’s hitting workers and business owners hard, local chambers of commerce are suggesting ways to support local businesses without setting foot in their establishment.

Buying gift cards to use later or items to pick up later, as well as keeping your memberships current (businesses rely on those dues) are all great ways to support local during these “uncertain times,” the Greater Wayzata Area Chamber of Commerce said in a March 16 Instagram post.

The Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce is also working to support local businesses even more now. It held a meeting on Friday, March 13, for local business owners to discuss the impact the outbreak could have on their bottom line, as well as strategies to stay open, such as boosting online offerings. The chamber discussed the potential of holding meetings like this in the weeks to come as well, but nothing had been announced as of March 17 (press time).

SUPPORT FOR WORKERS

On Monday, Walz also signed Executive Order 20-05 to support workers who are affected by the closures. The order strengthens Minnesota’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and ensures workers who are not able to work as a result of COVID-19 have benefits available.

The order waives the employer surcharge and allows the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to pay unemployment benefits immediately, allowing for faster relief for families affected by these closures.

“We understand the hardships these closings place on Minnesota’s workforce, and that’s why we’re focused on supporting workers and businesses who may have to temporarily close their doors,” DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said in a statement. “We’ve strengthened the state’s unemployment insurance program to expedite an increase in applicants looking for support, and we’ll stand by employers who may need new resources in this evolving economic climate.”

Walz’s announcement Monday came on the same day President Donald Trump recommended people limit gatherings to 10 people or fewer and a day after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said organizations should cancel or postpone gatherings of more than 50 people.

Other states have also taken the steps to close bars and restaurants to dine-in customers in recent days in hopes of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

TESTING

As of March 17, MDH has tested 2,336 people since Jan. 20, MDH’s website says.

MDH Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann told reporters on March 16 that “widespread testing is an aspirational goal” but due to global demands for testing causing a short supply in some materials, MDH is prioritizing its testing to those who would have the greatest impact on the health care system, such as hospitalized patients and health care workers.

Ehresmann stressed that people with mild symptoms do not need to be tested for COVID-19 because there is no treatment for mild cases and no clinical decision would be made based on the result of the test.

IF YOU GET SICK

If you have symptoms or are sick in any way, stay home. And just because you have symptoms does not mean you need to seek medical care so long as you can manage your symptoms at home, Ehresmann said.

Think of it this way: If it was October, before we knew of COVID-19 and you feel the way you do right now, would you have gone to the doctor? If the answer is yes, then contact your health care provider, Ehresmann explained.

“You don’t need to seek medical care just because COVID-19 is circulating,” Ehresmann said.

If you do get sick, you should stay home for a minimum of seven days, with Ehresmann saying you need to be fever-free (and not using fever-reducing medicines) for at least three of those days before you go back out into the community.