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A hand-made sign hangs from the base of the students section roughly 90 minutes prior to Owatonna’s season-opening football game against Rochester Century last season on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. In a decision announced on Monday, the MSHSL has reversed its original decision to delay football and volleyball to the spring of 2021 in favor of returning both sports to this fall. (File photo/SouthernMinn.com)

Case rate in Steele County still safe for elementary schools in-person learning

The COVID-19 case rate that determines how students will attend school has dropped in Steele County after a steady climb.

The county’s COVID-19 case rate per 10,000 remains in the safe zone for elementary schools to continue in-person learning, while middle schools and high schools are still required to have a hybrid model.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported Thursday that Steele County’s current rate for the reporting period of Aug. 30-Sept. 12 is 16.63, below the minimum case rate of 20 that would push Steele County elementary schools into a hybrid model. The county’s previous case rate sat at 19.09.

However, the number of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases have continued to rise in Steele County, with the current accumulative total of 535 cases as of Wednesday. Of those cases, 487 people are out of isolation and there have been two deaths. Ages of Steele County residents who have tested positive range from younger than 1 to in their 80s.

Rice, Nicollet and Le Sueur counties also saw drops in their COVID-19 case rates in the current two-week reporting period. Rice County is down to 9.73 from 12.47 cases per 10,000, marking the lowest rate in the region and the only area county that qualifies for all in-person learning. Nicollet County dropped from 13.02 to 10.95 while Le Sueur dropped from 27.16 to 16.80, giving county elementary schools an option to bring all students back to the classroom.

Dodge County surpassed the case rate maximum of 10 per 10,000 people required for in-person learning for all students, showing a case rate of 11.17 for the current reporting period. Freeborn County also breached a maximum case rate milestone, reporting a 20.64 case rate and moving all schools to hybrid models.

Mower County also saw an increase, jumping from a 12.88 case rate to 16.67.

Waseca County continues to have the highest case rate and climbed once again for the fifth-straight week, reporting a current case rate of 85.07 – the highest in the state for the third consecutive week. The rate has continued to rise, in part, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases at the Federal Correctional Institution in Waseca and a reporting lag of those cases with the state’s report.

Around 59% of the county’s cases reside in FCI-Waseca, but even with that data excluded, the county’s case rate per 10,000 still hovers in the 40s, according to Waseca County Public Health.

Any case rate above 50 requires all schools to use a distance learning model.

The increased cases at FCI-Waseca are largely due to new prisoners entering the facility. FCI-Waseca ranked No. 3 in the country among federal prisons for COVID-19 cases. As of Wednesday, the Bureau of Prisons reported 108 COVID-19 cases among inmates and three among staff members. A total of 180 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the prison while a total of 547 inmates have been tested among 605 total inmates, according to the BOP. A total of 102 inmates and six staff members have recovered from COVID-19, according to the BOP.

Inmates from a facility in Oklahoma arrived at FCI-Waseca in mid-August and that’s when COVID-19 cases started to spike at FCI-Waseca.

Some inmates from that group were quarantined after the virus was detected, but COVID-19 was identified on a different floor of the facility, Minnesota Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann told Minnesota Public Radio News last week. Ehresmann said federal marshals did not test the group of inmates prior to transferring them to Waseca.

Lynzey Donahue, a spokesperson for the Marshals, told The Marshall Project in an Aug. 13 article, that the Marshals are aware that some contract prisons aren’t testing inmates prior to transfer. In an email she wrote to The Marshall Project, she said the agency is following CDC guidance, which states: “If a transfer is absolutely necessary, perform verbal screening and a temperature check … before the individual leaves the facility.”

The Marshall Project article also reported that the U.S. Marshals do not put prisoners into quarantine or test them prior to transfer. As of early August, 3,500 in USMS custody tested positive for the virus and 13 died, according to The Marshall Project article.

The Minnesota Department of Health releases new COVID-19 case rate data on Thursdays.

JJD Companies awarded bid for county landfill project


A local company will be working to expand the Steele County Sanitary Landfill capabilities of accepting demolition debris following the awarding of the construction bid.

The Steele County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved Tuesday awarding the $237,966 contract to JDD Companies LLC of Blooming Prairie. JJD Companies was the lowest bidder of six total bids and was the only bid to come under the engineer’s $246,857 estimate. Commissioner James Brady abstained from voting.

“The project will take place this fall and construct a new area for demolition debris,” said County Administrator Scott Golberg. “It will also create a bypass piping system that will connect to our current system.”

The Steele County Landfill is located along Highway 218 just north of Bixby. The county has been in the landfill business for nearly 50 years, collecting roughly 100 tons of municipal mixed solid waste, better known as household garbage. That amounts to more than 30,000 tons – or 60 million pounds of garbage – each year dumped onto roughly 220 acres of county land.

That does not include the 6,000 tons of demolition material that is annually dumped in the landfill. Longevity of the site has been discussed since 2013, when the contracts for roughly 90% of the waste that was coming into the landfill was set to expire the following year.

“This project will create two additional disposal areas for demolition debris,” Golberg said. “We have already done cells A and B, so now we are moving on to cells C and D, and there will be two more cells left after that.”

Demolition debris includes materials from the demolition of buildings or roads, such as masonry, untreated wood, glass, rock, plastic building parts and asphalt shingles.

Golberg said the cells for demolition debris have a much larger capacity than the mixed waste area, allowing them to last longer without need for additional projects. The rest of the landfill, however, is quickly running out of time.

“The mixed solid waste area only has about eight years of capacity left,” Golberg said. “That will be a topic soon that we will be bringing to the board so they can decide what we’re going to do with the future of the county’s role in the landfill business.”

For the bypass system portion of the project, Golberg said the piping will allow for hauling out the contaminate known as leachate – or garbage water – to avoid it seeping into the ground and contaminating the ground water in the area.

“This will allow us to pump out any leachate while ensuring that it stays in that system,” Golberg said. “It is kind of for emergency situations, like if it gets really wet or we have a lot of rain.”

The project construction will begin later this fall, according to Golberg.

Filmmaker Joel Klein instructed Faribault Lutheran School seventh- and eighth-graders to hold a camera horizontally, the same way they view a TV screen. (Misty Schwab/southernminn.com)

Owatonna Public Schools host first state of the district address


Owatonna school officials reiterated the district’s commitment to the community and highlighted actions they’ve taken to demonstrate their dedication in the inaugural State of the District on Wednesday night.

Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad discussed this year’s learning models, the district’s strategic plan, construction of the new high school, racial equity efforts and the levy questions on the Nov. 3 ballot. While this year’s State of the District was livestreamed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elstad says he hopes that the district address can be held safely in person next year.

Reflecting back to the beginning of the pandemic in March, Elstad says the district went through a journey to integrate technology into the learning environment in short notice. Elstad admits that while exploring this new digital learning territory, mistakes were made and frustrations were had, but the challenges provided the district an opportunity to improve.

“However, through this steep learning curve, we were able to find new ways to connect and offer our students learning and certainly new ways to teach content,” Elstad said.

Another way in which the district has been creating 21st century learners is by integrating the newer Career Pathways program into its high school, which prepares students for life after graduation. In addition, Elstad said they’ve begun offering career exploratory courses at the middle school as well as software programs such as Naviance, which helps students by charting student progress and matching interests with potential careers.

The new Owatonna High School, set to open in August 2023, will also further encourage 21st century learners, Elstad said. A bond to build the new school was approved by voters last November. The new building is in the final stages of design and bids for construction should be going out in early 2021. Elstad says the project is on time and on budget.

Michelle Krell, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said they have been considering what a high school in 2023 should look like and have been envisioning new opportunities for students.

“We believe that students should have relevant authentic learning opportunities to ensure that they’re life-, college- and career-ready,” Krell said.

The new building will allow existing programs to expand and offer newer programs to take off as well. Partnerships have opened the door for more opportunities for students, including one with Riverland Community College. After receiving a career and technical education grant, the district is in the process of starting a license practical nursing program in the high school.

Elstad says Owatonna schools are committed to creating a safe and caring community.

“Through the years, the community demands for schools have grown even greater, calling for mental health supports, safety and crisis training, English language support, health services, individualized learning plans and preparation for the world that awaits our students after graduation,” Elstad said.

The school district provided 160,000 meals for children in the community, as well as childcare for essential workers, this summer. Elstad also pointed out that various safety precautions are being taken by the school this year due to COVID-19, including increased cleaning and disinfecting to mediate the spread of the virus.

Another goal of the district is to promote equity, especially in light of recent racial injustices involving the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed while in Minneapolis police custody, and rising awareness of systemic racism.

“Disparities exist in our schools and it is imperative that we continue to encourage the courageous conversations, to learn and do more and speculate less in our search for truth,” Elstad said.

Beginning three years ago, school administrators have enrolled in a program, Courageous Leadership and Courageous Conversations, which involves a two-year commitment to identify the district’s racial bias, developing a plan of action that addresses the systemic racism within the schools, as well as understanding how race impacts our lives and the student’s lives, according to Elstad. He said about 80 Owatonna school staff and over 40 community leaders have joined the program.

The district has committed to providing high-quality teaching and learning and Elstad says this spring had some unique challenges that forced them to transform how they taught in the matter of three days. Teachers and students had to quickly learn the new and necessary technologies.

“While this learning this past spring was not ideal, we did learn some critical things about how important personal connections and relationships really are,” Elstad said.

Through their experiences in the spring, Krell and Elstad said the district was able to tweak some things to make improvements for this fall, adding that each evolution requires trial and error. Elstad praised Owatonna school teachers’ talent and mentioned that two-thirds of the staff have master’s degrees in education and that they too are committed to being lifelong learners.

“While this has been a year unlike any other, we remain committed to our mission of inspiring excellence for every learner every day,” Elstad said.