Schools are closed across Minnesota — but stadium lights still brighten the night

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The lights at Nelson Field in Dawson, Minn.
The lights at Nelson Field in Dawson, Minn., shine bright on Wednesday, as part of the "Be the Light MN" campaign. Colleges, town ball teams and high schools across Minnesota -- including Dawson-Boyd High School -- are turning on the lights while schools and spring sports are on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo courtesy Ryan Stotesbery, Daren Swenson and Ken Franzky

Updated: April 9, 4 p.m.

High schools across Minnesota are closed and the spring sports season on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic — but there's a growing movement to keep the lights shining at school athletic fields in the coming weeks.

All across the state this week — in small towns and at large Twin Cities schools, for a few minutes or a few hours at a time — stadium lights cut through the dark of night.

The stadium lights at Crosby-Ironton High School
The stadium lights at Crosby-Ironton High School shine bright on Wednesday.
Courtesy of Jared Matson

"This is just a show of solidarity for our schools. We're all still here. We're going to be back under the lights at an event — at some point we're going to be able to gather again, and it's going to be great once we get back to that point," said John Millea with the Minnesota State High School League, who has been tracking the participating schools. "But I think just for now, it's just a symbol ... that there's still light out there and there's hope. And what we're going through now isn't going to last forever."

The "Be the Light" movement appears to have started March 24 in the Texas Panhandle town of Dumas. Seeking to brighten the spirits of his suddenly disconnected students in a gloomy and frightening time, high school principal Brett Beesley made a decision. They should turn on the lights.

“To let them know that we’re thinking about them and we miss them and we love them,” said Beesley, who quickly called football coach Aaron Dunnam with his idea.

Dunnam didn’t wait for their conversation to end before climbing into his car to head to the field and do the honors back during the first full week of closed schools in Texas.

Stadium lights in Ada, Minn.
Stadium lights in Ada, Minn., are switched on as part of the "Be the Light MN" campaign that includes high schools and other sports teams across the state.
Photo by Shirley Trickle

“I had chills running down my arms, running down my body,” said Dunnam, who has flipped the switch each weeknight at 8 p.m. since for an hour of hope and encouragement.

Nearly as fast, the symbolic act became a movement — fueled by social media with the hashtag #BeTheLight — across the country.

“I just love the focus to be on kids of this nation now," said Beesley, who used Twitter to challenge other Texas schools to follow suit.

The lights at the Pine City High School football field
The lights at the Pine City High School football field in Pine City, Minn., are switched on as part of the "Be the Light MN" campaign that includes high schools and other sports teams across the state.
Photo by Bill Christianson

The goal was to provide a beacon for all students in the district, not just the seniors or the athletes. Leaving the lights on for an hour adds $25 to the electric bill, Beesley said.

“I didn’t think the taxpayer would mind too much if it meant giving our kids some hope,” he said.

Millea said he saw schools in Colorado taking part, and then he helped spread the idea in Minnesota using the "#BetheLightMN" hashtag on Twitter.

The lights at R.B. Clay Field in Dawson, Minn.
The lights at R.B. Clay Field in Dawson, Minn., shine bright on Thursday night.
Photo courtesy Ryan Stotesbery, Daren Swenson and Ken Franzky

"Within less than 24 hours, I think we're up past 60 or 70 schools that have announced they're going to be turning on their football stadium lights or the baseball stadium or the tennis courts," he said Friday morning; the number of participating schools later passed 100. He said it's "just as a show of support for students and staff and community who are unable to gather."

By Monday, April 6, the number of participating schools passed 200.

The Minnesota State High School League is maintaining a list of participating schools on its Facebook page.

And it's not just high schools; some colleges and town ball teams across Minnesota also have joined in.

Each school or team is putting its own twist on the campaign. Some are planning to turn the lights on once a week, others each night. Many are switching on the lights at 8:20 p.m. (20:20 on the 24-hour clock) — a nod to this year's senior class. Or keeping them on for 20 minutes, 20 seconds for the same reason.

Montevideo is adding one minute of light each night, to represent each day the school has been closed.

And high school and town ball fields in the Central Public Schools district — that's ISD 108, serving Norwood-Young America, Cologne and Hamburg — are turning on the lights for 108 minutes.

Social distancing rules still apply — so schools have been asking people not to gather in crowds to see the lights. Many schools have been sharing photos online, or even live-streaming video from the stadiums.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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