Owatonna Public School administration, teachers, and parents expressed excitement for the return of students to classrooms on Monday, January 11 after an extended time of distance learning over the holiday period. Each of those groups were on hand for a virtual "Coffee and Conversation" hosted by Superintendent Jeff Elstad, who said he is "more than ready for Monday."

"I have not run across one staff member in Owatonna that has boisterous concerns about that. What I would tell you, is I think there's always this level of anxiety of what will that mean for me...I think there's some anxiety with individuals. But I would say, in general, across the board, our staff are elated to be back in buildings. Can't wait to see there kids again."

Elstad says the district uses a safe learning model guide (below) and that all systems are in the green zone. Positive case counts for COVID-19 infections in Steele County have come down from a high of over 170 cases per 10,000 residents to about 33 at the last announcement. He added that local case counts don't come into consideration for younger elementary levels anymore.

Owatonna Public Schools graphic

"The case count in the county is no longer a factor that we need to consider in the school district when it comes to the early grades...The epidemiologists for the state of Minnesota have done vast research on how this disease spreads...As we look at the spread within the students between the ages of 0 and 10, they're not seeing a preponderance of transmission within that age group." He added that some distancing requirements have changed as well with three feet of separation now the standard.

Parents and teachers attending the meeting said they happy, even "ecstatic," to get their children and students back into classrooms. Elstad is glad his own sophomore will get back to a regular schedule even if that only means a couple of days a week in-person, as is the case for upper grades in the hybrid model. Effective Monday, January 11 Pre-School thru fifth grade will have in-person class. Grades 6 thru 12 will be in hybrid.

Elstad hopes for a time this school year that all seniors can be together again. At a previous "Coffee and Conversation," Elstad said he hoped for a graduation that would be a bit more personal than the parking lot event held for the Class of 2020.

He said free COVID testing will be made available to staff members on an every-other-week basis beginning around January 20. He said vaccines will be offered to staff on a voluntary basis in the near future. School nursing staff will get the opportunity at vaccines starting Wednesday, January 13.

Natalie Ginter, the Director of Community Engagement at Owatonna Hospital-Alina Health, said over 300 vaccinations have been given in Steele County already. Most of those have gone to front line workers such as doctors and nurses. But she added that if someone misses an appointment, health officials find someone else to administer it to.

Elstad gave an update on athletic activities which started practice on January 4 and will open their varsity seasons on January 14. He said it was nice to hear basketballs bouncing in the gym in the early morning hours. He said coaches and officials will "Do our best" regarding mask usage, as mandated by the Minnesota State High School League after guidance from state health officials. Attendance will be limited at venues.

An update on the new high school indicated that the project is the technical drawing stage. Elstad said bids will be put out in late January or early February. The return of bids would follow about a month later. He anticipates ground-breaking in early spring, late March or early April. The new OHS is scheduled to open to the fall of 2023.

Elstad also addressed the issue of what occurred in the nation's capitol. He said staff is committed to talking about such events with students. He wants the message to include the fact that violence isn't the way to solve problems. He said it's alright to have divergent opinions, but respect for one another and friendship can still remain intact.

The next "Coffee and Conversation" is February 12. Elstad said he looks forward to the day when the event can be held face-to-face rather than in a virtual platform.

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