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SCHOOL CLOSURES: Few services continue, hiatus gives time to prep for potential distance learning

OWATONNA — Two days after declaring a peacetime emergency, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order Sunday authorizing the temporary closure of the state’s public schools in order to give administrators time to plan for future learning as COVID-19 continues to spread through Minnesota.

The closure of K-12 campuses to students will be in effect from March 18 to 27 and is aimed at giving teachers and administrators some time “to make long-term plans for the continuity of education and essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a March 15 news release from the governor’s office.

As of Monday morning, the Minnesota Department of Health had confirmed 54 positive instances of the respiratory illness, with cases in nearby Blue Earth, Olmsted and Waseca counties. So far, officials in both Blue Earth and Waseca have reported only one patient each.

Of the 19 new cases to be confirmed by the MDH since the weekend, Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann said Monday afternoon that her agency has had time to do thorough interviews with nine of the infected individuals. She noted in a press conference that she has seen no evidence of additional community spread from these new diagnoses.

However, the first likely cases of community transition have been identified in the state, and are located in Dakota, Hennepin and Ramsey counties according to Ehresmann.

“What that suggests is that we know that there are cases that have occurred in the community that have not come to detection,” she added, explaining that these three patients had no known travel or exposure to the virus. “People should assume that COVID-19 is circulating in their communities and they should be taking precautions.”

Owatonna remains open through Tuesday

For now, an online statement from the Owatonna Public Schools says the district is hoping to reopen March 30, but notes that that could change.

Before temporarily closing its doors, it’s working on providing laptops to every middle and high school student without preexisting access to a computer or tablet. According to the statement, this move is “to prepare for distance learning starting on March 30, 2020 if an extended break is necessary.”

While Walz required that all districts close campuses to students by Wednesday, some have opted to shut down earlier. According to Elstad, Owatonna’s decision to remain open through Tuesday was to give students time to gather their materials, including district devices and additional food to take home over the break.

“We made it optional for families. It wasn’t something we mandated. We just said we’re going to have our buildings open today and tomorrow,” added Elstad.

Families had the option to notify schools if their children would be staying home, with all absences excused for Monday and Tuesday. According to Owatonna High School social worker Nancy Williams, there were more than 300 teens absent from the high school on Monday.

Continued meal service

In preparation for students’ departure, Williams added that she’s trying to distribute as much food as possible from the school’s pantry for teens to take home — something she was already working on ahead of the district’s planned spring break next week.

With all donations for the school’s food shelf and take-home program coming from area churches, Williams said she’s waiting to see if and how donations to the initiative will continue after spring break in light of the virus.

“If we could continue to support those families more with some food, there’s a chance we could be delivering to a doorstep or have a location where people could come to pick it up,” said Williams. “But it’s all still really up in the air.”

In Owatonna, Elstad said the district will be offering lunch for students through the end of the week and then reevaluating for how to proceed starting March 30. As of late Monday morning, he said the district is not planning to offer food service during the week of March 23, when it had planned to have students on spring break.

Child care requirement

The executive order also directed districts to provide emergency childcare for the students of emergency workers — including health care professionals, public health employees and law enforcement personnel, among others. In Owatonna, Elstad said this will be provided by district staff throughout the closure at McKinley Elementary and possibly elsewhere from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Blooming Prairie, Medford and the New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva school districts all have similar plans for daily child care for families of emergency workers, as well as meal service of some kind. All three entities noted on their websites that more information and in some cases surveys to determine community needs would be sent out to families in the coming days.

“We’ll have something set up at the high school where people can come outside and pick up those meals. We’re also working with our bus service on how we can deliver,” said Blooming Prairie Public Schools Superintendent Chris Staloch, of some ideas for continued food service. “It’s definitely a flexible and fluid situation right now.”

Making a plan for distance learning

In terms of distance learning, Staloch added that all students in seventh- through 12th-grade already have either a tablet or a laptop through the district, and that there will need to be some additional brainstorming as to how distance learning might work at the elementary level.

As of now, he noted that all staff members would continue to come into work in the district and help plan for how distance learning might look if an extended closure were required. In Owatonna, Elstad said teaching staff and emergency essential personnel will be in through the end of the week doing similar planning.

While Blooming Prairie closed school immediately starting Monday, the building will remain open during the day through Tuesday for students to come in and collect their belongings. Both Staloch and Elstad said that the school boards will continue to meet, although Elstad said officials’ March 30 meeting may be done virtually.COVID-19 and its spread has caused fear and uncertainty across the globe. To ensure our community has the latest information on this public health threat, APG Media of Southern Minnesota is providing stories and information on this issue in front of its paywall.

special section
Food shelves face unique barriers as COVID-19 spreads

The arrival of COVID-19 in Minnesota is posing a unique set of problems for area food shelves and their suppliers, as grocery stores have less left over to donate and hygiene concerns necessitate unique ways of taking in and delivering food to clients.

According to Jessica Sund, director of development and communications at Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester, there’s been an increase in demand for food assistance due to the virus as residents lose shifts or are laid off due to closures, and as schools statewide take at least an eight-day hiatus from in-person learning starting Wednesday — although many area districts are finding ways to continue meal services for students.

Sund added that Channel One — which serves individuals, agencies and food shelves in Rice, Steele and Waseca counties, among others — is also facing new difficulties on the supply side.

“We get our food in several different ways. We get donated food from manufacturers, and food rescue is something that we work on with grocery stores. We’ve seen a reduction in that,” she noted, explaining that area residents have been stocking up more in recent weeks.

With an increase in demand and corresponding drop in donations, Sund added that Channel One is going to need to purchase more food and that monetary donations to area food banks or shelves are one of the primary ways right now that community members can help.

Nancy Ness, co-executive director of Community Pathways of Steele County, echoed Sund — adding that her agency has also asked individuals to no longer bring in donations from home, in light of the virus.

With 54 cases confirmed statewide by the Minnesota Department of Health as of Monday afternoon, officials are focused on limiting interactions and exposure. In southern Minnesota, cases have been identified in Blue Earth, Olmsted and Waseca counties, and the first instances of community transmission were discovered over the weekend in Dakota, Hennepin and Ramsey.

“We’re also asking volunteers not to come in, because most of our volunteers are elderly,” said Ness. Older individuals and those with pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, heart and lung disease are thought to be especially vulnerable to more severe cases of COVID-19.

Starting on Tuesday, she added that the Community Pathways food program would also likely start bringing all orders out to clients’ cars — putting food in their trunks, in order to limit the number of people entering the facility. If more residents need home delivery, Ness said her agency will also try to ramp up that aspect of its program.

“At this point, we’ll let people who normally would come here continue to come here,” she added.

Next door, the Waseca Area Food Shelf is making use of a pass-through window it had installed recently for client privacy reasons. According to director Toni Larson, the window is embedded in the agency’s door, allowing food to be packed up inside and passed to clients through the slit without them needing to come into the space.

“I think all of us should be practicing social distancing everywhere we can. I think it’s really vital that we all do that right now,” added Larson. “It isn’t about not being friendly. It’s about, wherever you’re at, keeping a safe distance.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the respiratory illness is most often spread by people who are within about six feet of each other through droplets produced by coughs or sneezes.

In order to keep a safe distance, Carla Pearson with the Three Rivers Community Action Meals-On-Wheels program in Faribault said clients can always request a drop-off at their front door. “We don’t have any intention to close the Meals-On-Wheels program,” she added. “Volunteers are continuing to deliver meals to homebound older adult clients within city limits.”

She added that sometime next week, Three Rivers will deliver shelf-stable kits to all of its clients. These will contain 14 meals to act as a replacement supplement in case of an emergency. In light of the virus, Pearson also added that Three Rivers has been receiving a handful of inquiries from residents interested in helping out.

“I’ve already received three phone calls today from brand new volunteers who want to help in Faribault during the crisis,” she explained. “We would love to have a larger volunteer base — not just because of this, but because we’re constantly in crisis of needing more volunteers and we can’t provide this program without them.”

During a Sunday afternoon press conference on the executive order to temporarily close K-12 schools, Gov. Tim Walz also issued a plea for residents to volunteer with their local service agencies.

“I think we all recognize our food pantries are going to need help, there are going to be volunteer opportunities to help our fellow Minnesotans,” he said. “Those opportunities will start to arise over the coming weeks and months.”

Over in Nicollet County, volunteers said the St. Peter Area Food Shelf was also crowded on Monday afternoon. In between orders, helper Jo Eversman explained that her agency is also providing curbside pick-ups, like many in the area.

She explained that the bulk of volunteers will remain in the building packaging food, while one person will be stationed outside to take orders and relay that information back to those creating the take-home boxes.

For now, one other measure that Ness said her agency has considered taking is increasing the amount of food clients can pick up during their monthly visit to the pantry. Currently, she said the package is what the agency considers a 10-day supply.

“At this point, we’re going to keep it the same but that’s going to have to be something we continue to monitor and make sure the food that we’re getting from Channel One isn’t going to be impacted,” she added. “I think we’re a little concerned that we’re going to have a steady supply of food coming in.”

Like Sund, Ness said the biggest thing community members can do to help is to donate money to the food shelf if they are able, in case the nonprofit needs to purchase more of its own food.

With both the human and economic impacts of the virus making their way to Minnesota, Sund reiterated, “If you are being affected by this, please do not hesitate to reach out to your local food shelf. It’s a time to not feel insecure or ashamed if you are experiencing difficulties.”COVID-19 and its spread has caused fear and uncertainty across the globe. To ensure our community has the latest information on this public health threat, APG Media of Southern Minnesota is providing stories and information on this issue in front of its paywall.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND agranlund@owatonna.com 

Of the four finalists, it was Lisa Hyland (second from left) who was named the recipient of the Owatonna Business Women 48th annual Woman of Achievement award. Pictured, from left to right, are the four finalists: Kristin Haberman, Hyland, Lisa Kern, and Barb Heerema. (Annie Granlund/People's Press)

Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

A gate at the Chicago Cubs practice facility at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz., is closed and locked ON Monday. The remainder of spring training baseball games have been canceled due to the coronavirus and the MLB has delayed Opening Day until the middle of May at the earliest. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Founder of Curly Girlz Candy named Minnesota’s 2020 Small Business Person

OWATONNA — In a world full of chaos, Paula Trenda wants nothing more than to share a little sweetness — with everybody.

“When I started out I just wanted to make chocolate and support my family. I was totally content doing that and working my little business,” the founder and owner of Curly Girlz Candy said. “I started on the sugar-free candy because I have a lot of diabetic family members and I just didn’t care for what was out there in the market.”

Over the last five years, Trenda and the Curly Girlz brand has experienced exponential growth. The store relocated in 2017 from its original location in Medford to downtown Owatonna — which has since experienced a 1,100-square-foot growth, and has placed more than once in the Minnesota Cup — the largest entrepreneurial competition in the country. In 2019, the candy creator switched to sugar-free only online production, with a small selection of “sugared” candies available to order through the retail store seasonally.

Trenda can add another notch in her confectionary belt, as last week she was named the U.S. Small Business Administration Small Business Person of the Year for Minnesota. With the title, Trenda is invited to attend special ceremonies in Washington, D.C., the first week of May where she will be honored with her individual award. During these ceremonies, the SBA will announce the 2020 National Small Business Person of the Year, of which Trenda is currently in the running.

“I knew that someone had nominated us, but that was back in January . We were very surprised to found out that we had won,” Trenda said. “We are very honored that the folks who nominated us thought that highly of us and that the Small Business Administration judging panel liked what they saw as well.”

While the success and recognition has been the icing on the cake, Trenda stated that helping others remains one of her top motivators in continuing to expand her business.

“People send us emails thanking us, stating that now their child can bring something in for a birthday when they can’t have whatever else people are bringing in, or that they’re on a low-carb diet and losing weight, or that they are overcoming eating disorders or other health issues,” Trenda said. “All of that really makes us want to do more and see what else we can create for people.”

Over the last year, Trenda has been diligently working on a sugar-free salted nut roll, and she believes that she may be on the verge of getting it just right. While she can laugh over the copious amount of nougat that she has thrown out for one reason or another, she stated that it’s all part of the fun in the process.

“We were trying some stuff in between Christmas and Valentine’s and now again in between Valentine’s and Easter and a lot of stuff goes in the trash during those weeks,” Trenda laughed. “But it just gets me excited to see what else I can try.”

Trenda is hoping that her salted nut roll will be ready in the near future, promising that it will be one of a few new things that she currently has in the works as she continued to spread her sweetness in Owatonna and around the world.

“We are really happy with the fact that we moved to downtown Owatonna. It has really helped grow our awareness,” Trenda said. “And we are super happy with all the resources we’ve received from the city, the county, and everything that the community has given to us as well.”

Curly Girlz Candy is located at 121 W Main Street in Owatonna.