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Owatonna schools will begin the new education year with a mix of in-person and hybrid models. Kindergarten through fifth grade will start the year with in-person class. While sixth through twelve grade will be on a hybrid with class two days a week and distance learning three days. About 950 students and their families requested distance learning. That allowed for a scenario where social distancing can be accomplished more easily.

Superintendent Jeff Elstad said, “The distance learning option that we have provided for families has actually helped us achieve some of our social distancing. I love when all of our kids are present, but I know some families have made that conscious choice and we want to absolutely support that.” Elementary classes will vary from as few as 14 students up to about 20. He said each student will have roughly 40 square feet to themselves in each classroom.

Full and extensive details are available in the school's Safe Start document.

Middle school and high school will be divided into two groups. One will be in class Monday and Tuesday. The other group on Thursday and Friday. Students will do distance learning the other three days of the week.

“We’ve taken careful precautions around safety. We have our custodial crew has adjusted some times to have more custodians during the day…Surfaces will be cleaned probably three, four, as many as five times a day.”

The elementary day will be slightly shortened in order to work in a two-tiered transportation plan that the district has created with the assistance of the Owatonna Bus Company.

Elstad conducted a ‘Coffee and Conversation’ open forum session to discuss the plan for the start of the school year. He said the district learned much about distance learning during the crash course they went through in the spring. “Distance learning is going to look and feel a lot different this fall. If families have chosen distance learning, we have an Owatonna certified teacher that will become their teacher.”

“We have assigned some of our staff to be fulltime distance learning teachers. And what we looked at was a combination of both the staff that may have some documented medical needs that would make this a better situation for them, as well as coupling that with their skills with technology.” Elstad said this concept works better at the elementary level.

Elstad indicated that some courses at the secondary level might have a single teacher available to cover the material, making for a “trickier” situation, citing as an example there is “one German teacher.” In some elective courses, teachers might do in-person lessons that are recorded and presented digitally to other students.

School officials will be in regular contact with health experts on the current rate of COVID-19 cases in the county to determine if models have to change. Elstad said the elementary schools are already nearly in a hybrid model thanks to the ability to socially distance in classrooms and the number of students that requested to be on distance learning.

Face coverings will be required, “could be a cloth mask, could be a paper mask, could be a bandana, by executive order could be a gaiter…but also we’re offering the opportunity to have shields,” said Elstad. A participant in the ‘Coffee and Conversation’ event brought up the fact that a local non-profit company Shields of Steele is creating themed shields that can be more comfortable for some students to wear.

Elstad said there would be no required testing for COVID-19. He indicated that there are two flow charts to decide upon actions when there are cases: one for those with symptoms and one for those with close contact. He pointed out that close contact in 15 minutes or more in close proximity. And said passing in the hallway is not considered close contact.

Addressing some questions, Elstad said officials are trying to think of different options to include mentoring programs and allow for volunteers to work with the district. As it stands the Department of Education does not allow for visitors to enter school buildings currently. This even includes fans to attend any virtual swimming meets the Huskies girls’ team will host at the middle school.

Elstad pointed out that activities are still being held. Fall sports will include soccer, cross country, and girls tennis in addition to swimming and diving. Fall play, music, math league, and robotics are among other activities that are still being planned on for the school year. He said high school principal Kory Kath was working on ideas for some way to hold homecoming and was getting creative ideas from students.

Elstad opened the ‘Coffee and Conversation’ by saying, “I feel incredibly supported by our community. I think all of us recognize these are really interesting and challenging times. And I think everyone is doing their best to try and find a way to be safe…I do appreciate the support and patience that all of our parents have been so willing to give. Because we are all in this together. We will come out on the other side.”