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Blooming Prairie cross country runners (from left to right) Bobbie Bruns, Alex Miller, Megan Oswald and Luke Larkoski are each an integral part of a program that has swelled to a record 40 runners this season. Bruns, Oswald, Larkoski and several other teammates joined the program after their primary fall sport was moved to the spring. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

In a year like no other, Owatonna schools welcomes students back

Schools across Minnesota are welcoming back students to school buildings to begin a unique year of learning.

In mid-August the Owatonna school district announced that pre-kindergarten through grade five students would begin this school year with in-person instruction. Tuesday was the first day back in the buildings for many elementary students. The district has repeatedly said they are finding creative utilizations of space and implementing social distancing when possible to mediate the risk of COVID-19.

All Owatonna schools students and staff are required to wear masks inside school and on the bus. Shown here are students at McKinley Elementary. (Photo courtesy of Justin Kiel)

McKinley Elementary School Principal Justin Kiel felt prepared for the first day back to school. He says a lot of work went into creating the back to school plans and figuring out what things would look like inside the building.

“We’ve had awesome support from the district office around being involved in what our return plan looks like,” Kiel said, adding that there had been several meetings prior to the first day of school.

Several of these meetings were held, with teacher and family input, according to Kiel. The challenge is to create a plan that takes into account potential obstacles that may come about during the school year and prepare for those situations.

“You know I think people can create a plan and then once people go and execute it it looks totally different,” Kiel said. “But it was well prepared, teachers had a voice in it, we worked with our building leadership team to say you should probably think about doing this.”

Flexibility will be a must this school year, even with a well laid out plan, there are bound to be a few hiccups, Even so, Kiel is confident in school’s plans.

“Kids are smiling underneath their masks and ready to go,” Kiel said.

McKinley Elementary in Owtonna had its first day of class on Tuesday. McKinley Elementary also houses the K-5 distance learning program with the Owatonna School District. (Photo courtesy of Justin Kiel)

The Owatonna School District says there are several modifications made to in-person learning to minimize COVID-19, for example face coverings are required in school and on the bus. Frequent cleaning and disinfecting of high touch areas will be completed. Families are asked to screen their students before coming to school each day and keep those who are sick at home. Non essential visitors, volunteers and activities are limited and field trips and large group gatherings will not be allowed. Proper hand washing and sanitizer will be accessible, according to the district’s safe start website.

Last week Owatonna high school and middle school students started the academic year with the hybrid model of learning. The hybrid model includes two days of in-person learning and three days of distance learning each week.

A teacher instructs students via the distance learning program. (Photo courtesy of Justin Kiel)

Parks & Rec mitigate revenue losses with spending cuts

Despite the increase in use of the city’s parks and trails system, it has been a relatively quiet summer as a large number of events and programs have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Owatonna’s Parks and Recreation Department has seen a definite decline in revenue due to a loss in rentals and program participations, the interim director feels confident that the department will end the year in a good place budget-wise.

“We have had some revenue loss, but when you couple that with the less maintenance we have to do I feel overall from the Parks & Rec side we’ve managed pretty well with the budget,” said Troy Klecker. “Activities have been canceled, but that revenue loss has been offset by expenditures we haven’t had to make.”

When COVID-19 first started to directly impact southern Minnesota in March, Klecker said one of the city’s first priorities was delaying the hiring of seasonal staff. He said the city knew programming would be hit hard in the form of league play as a lot of associations wouldn’t be able to utilize the fields and baseball diamonds during certain state restrictions on competition and group gatherings. That limited the maintenance and upkeep that was normally done by seasonal part-time work.

“When all that first happened in March, we just continued to watch and monitor when activities would be allowed from the governor again and held off on hiring those part-time people,” Klecker said. “We just didn’t have the work for them that we typically would have, and that carried out for most of the summer. There is a lot that never happened this year.”

Owatonna was not alone in seeing both loss of revenue and savings in payroll cost for seasonal employees that were never brought on. In Faribault, Parks & Recreation Director Paul Peanasky said the city is seeing a 50% reduction in picnic shelter rentals compared to a typical summer.

“We typically have a lot of birthday parties and renting of rooms and gyms for different groups, but that is basically at a complete stand still for us,” Peanasky said, adding that department expenses won’t be near as high as in the past as they elected not to bring back most seasonal employees. “I don’t know if I could say it’s a full wash between the two, not yet anyway.”

Peanasky said at this point none of the cuts to the seasonal employees are being viewed as permanent and that the city hopes to return to 2019 staffing levels in 2021. Of course, that will all depend on what the future holds. Permanent changes to any rental and program fees are also being put either on hold or are very minimal.

“We did make minor changes to our fee structure in 2021, but a majority is on hold as we try to get through the process of getting people back into the programs again,” said Peanasky.

Klecker said Owatonna isn’t now planning on making any permanent changes to seasonal staff, but the reduction in rentals did allow the city to reevaluate how they handled certain rentals.

“The one light adjustment we made on rentals is we used to offer half day rentals at half price,” Klecker said, referring largely to pavilion structures in Owatonna’s parks. “What we found out was we would have to go in to clean and make it available if someone had it rented for the second half of that same day, and while we had less seasonal part-time staff and very few days where we had double half-day rentals, we decided to just rent it out on full days for people.”

With this adjustment, Klecker said people no longer will be rushed out of their rental even if there isn’t a second rental coming in later that day. He also said it allows those renting the spaces to be able to come early to decorate or set up if they like.

“It just makes it more efficient for us and allows the renters use for the whole day,” Klecker said. “We are not looking at modifying or changing any of our other fees right now.”

Pictured are Phil and Laura Davison, registered Cottage Food producers and owners of Davison Produce and Cookery, in their stand set up in their backyard in Moland. (Photo courtesy of Phil Davison)

Health professionals urge early flu vaccinations during pandemic

It’s the time of year for jackets, crunchy leaves and pumpkin spice everything, but there’s something else the start of fall signifies: flu season.

Health professionals recommend everyone 6 months of age and older receive the flu vaccination annually. As the country continues efforts to slow down the spread of COVID-19, health professionals are especially urgent in their message to get vaccinated.

“We don’t know what the season will bring as far as the level of flu illness, but that’s why we want people to get vaccinated now,” said Deb Purfeerst, director of Rice County Public Health. “Both the flu and COVID-19 are respiratory illnesses. We know thousands of Minnesotans end up in the hospital due to the flu each year, and having both those circulating, we want to keep both of those cases down to not overwhelm the healthcare system.”

It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, which is another reason why Purfeerst encourages early vaccinations. Influenza typically circulates between October and May, she said, but it’s never too late to get vaccinated, either.

“We’re fortunate we have a vaccine to help lessen severity [of influenza],” Purfeerst said. “That’s not the case with COVID, so we want to keep as many people healthy and out of the hospital as possible.”

Getting the flu vaccination doesn’t just protect the one who received the vaccine, Purfeerst explained. It also prevents the spread of the flu to those who could get sick with complications. For example, she said it’s important for those who spend a lot of time with children under 6 months, who are too young for the vaccination, to get a flu shot. Those most likely to experience complications of the flu are those 65 and older, children under 5, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions.

Since the circulating viruses change from year to year, Purfeerst said the vaccine may not always match the current virus exactly. But vaccine developers complete their research well before flu season starts to determine which viruses will most likely circulate in the U.S. based on what’s occurring in other countries.

“Typically most flu vaccines have protections against four different strains,” Purfeerst said. “Those in the business of developing flu vaccines are definitely attempting to match what is most likely to circulate.”

Vaccinations serve as “one tool in the toolbox” of preventing the spread of the flu, she said. Many preventative measures are similar to those already being enforced during the pandemic: washing hands, cleaning frequently touched surfaces and staying at home when sick. With that comes wearing a mask and social distancing, which have become customary responses to the coronavirus pandemic but can also ward off the flu.

Where to go

A number of healthcare facilities, pharmacies and sometimes even places of work are offering flu vaccinations starting this week. Rice County Public Health primarily focuses on congregate settings like senior living facilities, where access to flu vaccinations might pose a challenge this year. Public Health also has a special effort to provide vaccinations to uninsured and under-insured populations. Purfeerst encourages individuals to contact their primary healthcare provider or Public Health to learn how to access the vaccination.

Community clinics will look differently this year due to the safeguards applied in response to COVID-19. Where large group events previously drew in a number of clients lining up to receive the vaccination, Purfeerst said individuals may need to call to schedule their appointments in advance or wait in their cars to maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

Allina Health clinics are now accepting appointments for flu vaccinations, both from Allina patients and non-Allina patients. Those who scheduled appointments for other reasons will be offered the vaccine during their visit. These vaccines are injectable, and supplies for a nasal spray called FluMist will soon become available for patients ages 2 through 49.

“Getting an influenza vaccination is especially important with COVID-19 still very active in our community,” said Allina Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Frank Rhame in a press release. “Co-infection with COVID-19 and influenza produces more serious disease. Since the flu and COVID-19 produce similar symptoms, it is even more important for people to get the flu shot as a way to reduce the likelihood of needing to use precious supplies, like tests, to rule out a COVID-19 infection. Getting a flu shot is one simple way people can contribute to the efforts to combat COVID-19 this year.”

Similarities between COVID-19 and influenza include common symptoms of fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, body aches and headache. Changes or loss of taste or smell may point to coronavirus, symptoms not often associated with the flu. While both can result in severe illnesses and complications for seniors and babies, Purfeerst said healthy children over 5 are more at risk of the flu compared to COVID-19.

The Mayo Clinic Health System also encourages early vaccinations and stresses the need for community participation in slowing down both illnesses.

“With no vaccine for COVID-19, we’ll continue to see the virus spread and sicken people this fall and winter. Unfortunately, that will coincide with the upcoming flu season,” Martin Herrmann, M.D., medical director of Mayo Clinic Health System in New Prague, said in a press release. “We need people to do their part and get the flu vaccine to lessen the severity of the upcoming flu season so we can continue to respond to COVID-19 as needed.”