Five-day-a-week class. Volunteers back in the buildings. No masks. That's the anticipation of Owatonna Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad, who hosted the monthly "Coffee and Conversation" forum on Thursday. Students in the district are currently attending at least four days a week with distance learning still an option for those who choose.

He said Owatonna schools are in the "best position that we've been in a long time." He reported that two schools (Lincoln and Roosevelt) had zero students or staff out due to the pandemic. Washington and Wilson were below one percent. While the rest were below two percent.

The Owatonna Public Schools May newsletter indicated, "The number of cases continues to be below the 5% threshold at each school site in the district. Each week, we post the percentage of students or staff who are experiencing COVID-like symptoms, or have COVID, on our website."

Elstad said students have been able to remove masks in some outdoor settings. He says some people felt it was "weird to see a face" again.

The newsletter also announced a free vaccination clinic on Monday, May 17 from 3 to 7 pm at the Owatonna Middle School cafeteria for anyone ages 12 and older "and with the permission of the parent/guardian for those under the age of 18." A second clinic will occur Monday, June 7 for those who receive their first shot on May 17.

Elstad reported that the district will ramp up the mental health approach for their students, with the goal of having a mental health professional in each building by fall. Federal money will help with this implementation. Currently four such positions are held through the district.

Elstad said the number of home visits skyrocketed during distance learning with about 20 to 30 percent of students struggling with online learning. He said a small percentage simply stopped engaging with instructors.

In the week after the groundbreaking of the new Owatonna High School, Elstad said the district fielded about 70 phone calls from families looking to relocate to southern Minnesota. Most wanted to know when the Highway 14 project would be completed (traffic should be on the new portion of the expanded roadway between Owatonna and Dodge Center by this fall.) The new high school opens in the fall of 2023.

Elstad said there is a goal to keep class size down, especially at the elementary level. During distance learning, class size was in the range of 15-16. He's hoping for less than 20 per kindergarten class in the future. And 20-23 for first through fifth grades.

The Owatonna Online Academy had about 60 signups as of Thursday. Students from anywhere can utilize the online academy.

The "Coffee and Conversation" sessions will take a bit of a break for summer. The next one will occur in August.

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