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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

Owatonna’s Sara Anderson, seen here setting up a backhand during her senior season this past fall, participated in three sports for a combined 13 years at the varsity level. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Separated during the pandemic, BBBS shows its support for for area children

For those with a passion about supporting children to grow and healthy, well-adjusted adults, halting interactions between with youngsters they’ve mentored has been difficult.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization stopped the interaction of mentors – or ‘Bigs’ – and their mentees – or ‘Littles’ – for an unknown amount of time. Michelle Redman, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota executive director, said that matches are itching to be together again, but that until they hear more from the national organization everyone will have to simply sit tight.

In the meantime, Redman said that the Bigs want to do whatever they can to support their Littles during an unprecedented point in history. With everything today’s youth are facing, Redman said that the coronavirus pandemic is presenting a whole new set of challenges, making mentoring more important than ever.

“We have been working on this project called ‘Growing Greatness’ and have been looking for ways to help the kids in our program with the distance learning,” Redman said. “We reached out to the school district and they said that they don’t actually need tutors or academic help right now, but that the biggest help they need is good mental health support. “

Redman said that having an extra support system can be crucial for youth during a time of crisis, and that mentors can help youth with positive mental health by checking in to see how they are coping with stress associated with the pandemic. The Growing Greatness project evolved into showing the youth involved in BBBS that they are important and loved, even during social distancing and isolation.

On Thursday and Friday, BBBS staff members, Bigs, and board members delivered 675 potted flowers to every child signed up for the program – including those on the waiting list to be matched with a mentor. The flowers were donated by Donahue’s Greenhouse in Faribault, and Turtle Creek Nursery and Landscaping, and Souba Greenhouse and Nursery, both in Owatonna.

“It is important for our youth to know that they have people outside of their family that are there for them, and we want to make sure that they feel supported during this difficult time,” Redman said, adding that words of affirmation were also attached to the plant. “If our flower and words can brighten their day, then I call that a success.”

A poem was also included among the words of affirmation which reads “Just a little something to brighten up your day. A promise we’ll get through this and all will be okay. So even if for now, we have to be apart. Know that we are here for you and you are in our hearts.”

The flowers were delivered to Littles, as well as their siblings, in Steele, Rice, Dodge and Waseca counties.

To open public pools or not? That's the question

Summer is fast approaching and school is coming to an end, making families eager and ready to head out to their favorite local pool. But this year, they may not have that option.

While some area cities have already elected to not open for the 2020 season, others are holding off on making a final decision.

Pine Springs Pool in Blooming Prairie will remain closed this summer, undergoing upgrades and maintenance in lieu of being open. An official decision on the Medford Pool and River Springs Water Park has yet to be made, but both city pools are ready in terms of staff – for now.

“We got really lucky and were able to recertify all of our staff over the Christmas break,” said Dani Licht, the recreation supervisor and pool manager at River Springs. “So for our current staff we have no issues, but I don’t have a new class of lifeguards coming in, and that concerns me.”

The American Red Cross, which provides the training for lifeguards and swim instructors for pools like River Springs, issued nationwide guidelines at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using an already blended learning program, new lifeguards are able to take half of their training online while the other half that includes water skills and CPR is to be done in person. Red Cross facilities are encouraged to have new lifeguards complete the online portion, but Licht said that when they can complete the training is still unknown.

“We can safely teach our CPR, First Aid and AED (automated external defibrillator) portion of the class — really we can do all of it, but the in-water actual lifeguarding skills,” Licht said. “Obviously when we train a new lifeguard they need to be able to do that, we can’t put them in a real-life situation if they haven’t trained in those skills.”

Though Licht said that she is set for the 2020 season in terms of lifeguards and swim instructors, she is deeply concerned about what it will mean for future pool seasons if they aren’t able to open and train new lifeguards.

“As my college kids phase out, I need that new class to come in and replace them,” Licht said. “And if we don’t open, I will be losing all of my staff as they go to grocery stores and other places to find a summer job. What is going to happen next year and the year after that?”

Aside from potentially losing lifeguards, Licht said that she is also worried about other repercussions that could follow the closure of swimming pools for the summer. She said that without a safe place for the community to swim, she is worried about where those families and children will go instead.

“We live in the land of 10,000 lakes, and having so much water that isn’t guarded is a huge concern of mine,” Licht said. “By not having our pools open, not only are we not giving families a place for to swim with lifeguards, but swimming lessons aren’t being offered. Kids aren’t learning how to swim or about how it’s not a good idea to swim alone or without a lifeguard.”

“There is a real possibility of someone drowning and that is not something we ever want to happen,” Licht continued. “Red Cross is recognizing this concern of no swim lessons across the country and they are trying to release some programs for parents to do online for water safety courses.”

Licht said that the likelihood of group swim lessons happening in 2020 is low, but that they are still looking into ways to provide private swim lessons. While the higher level lessons will be easier to provide as the swim instructor will be able to still adhere to social distancing, the lower level lessons that are sometimes more crucial to provide will be more difficult to offer. One possibility Licht suggested as a way to offer lessons and adhere to social distancing recommendations is to require a parent or guardian to be in the water with the child during the lower level lessons.

“Those private lessons are something we really could possibly offer because obviously there is only one family in the water at a time with the instructor,” Licht said. “It’s easier for the instructor to keep track of the student and there is no cross contamination between families.”

Though some people may worry about the transmission of COVID-19 at swimming pools, Licht said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already released data that shows that the appropriate levels of chlorine and chemicals already used in pools will kill off the virus. She added that if pools are to open, however, that people will need to take extra precautions to avoid touching other surface areas at the pool and still avoid touching their faces.

“We will have to take extra steps to sanitize everything from the bathrooms to the hand rails, and we are doing all we can to look into those areas,” Licht said. “But the water itself is safe.”

At this time, Licht said that there is no timeline for when the city will decide about opening River Springs this summer.

The city of Medford has also yet to make a decision on whether or not to open the city pool, though a plan has already been put in place if they do. If the pool does open in 2020, it will open a week later than normal on Saturday, June 13, according to a memorandum from the city administrator. The pool staff would also be enforcing social distancing, allowing approximately 25 to 30 patrons in the large pool at a time and only three to four patrons in the baby pool. The 2020 pool season is scheduled to be discussed by the Medford City Council Monday evening.

This is what a new batch of aggressive gnats look like this spring in the Twin Cities. The Metropolitan Mosquito Control District says they’re not a variety they usually treat for in running water. (Courtesy of Baton Rouge Mosquito Abatement District)

Parking lot graduation, new high school design coming soon


Superintendent Jeff Elstad met virtually with community members Friday morning to share a plan for graduation and summer programming, as well as an update on planning for the new high school.

After months of meeting with a core planning team of students, staff and district residents, Wold Architects and Engineers will share an initial design of the new building at a June 8 Owatonna Public School Board meeting.

“At that work session, members of the core planning team and Wold Architects will be releasing to our community a glimpse of what the design of the new high school will be,” Elstad said, “as well as some of the renderings that they’re able to share.”

The update came as part of the 45-minute “Coffee and Conversation” event open to the public through a video call. Elstad was joined by a few fellow district staff and a handful of community members for the discussion, with the new high school being one of the first questions to come up.

“Our three daughters have all graduated from Owatonna High School,” said one of the attendees, of his reason for calling in. “We wanted to get some input on the new school and how it’s progressing.”

In response to a question on sustainability, Elstad added that the new facility should have no fewer than 20 electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lot and that the district is looking into options for rooftop solar units.

“With our expanded greenhouse that will be at the high school, we’re looking at the opportunity for that to be completely solar-powered, because in the winter it does require some heating and lighting,” he added.

Hybrid summer programming

In addition to an update on the new high school planning process, Elstad shared a few more details on credit recovery and graduation. The district received guidance on the topics form the Minnesota Department of Education Thursday, stating that they’ll be able to offer an in-person component for summer programming.

“We’re able to offer distance learning, we’re able to offer a face-to-face option or a hybrid of those two to serve our students,” he said.

For any in-person component, there could be no more than nine students and one teacher per classroom, with everyone spaced six feet apart or further. Additionally, everyone coming into the building would need to have a temperature screen and all staff would wear masks.

Starting on June 8, the district will also offer its school age summer care program. While Owatonna Public Schools has been providing free care for the children of emergency and essential workers this spring during the typical school day, after school lets out it will return to a fee-based service as in the past.

Parking lot graduation

Details about graduation were finalized late this week, and Elstad was also able to share the district’s final decision for the Class of 2020. After asking seniors to vote between two possible options — an entirely virtual ceremony or a parking lot graduation — the high school is opting for the latter. As planned, the celebration will be held on Sunday, June 7. The bulk will take place in the southern Federated Insurance campus parking lot, with graduates and their families assembling and remaining in their cars.

“There will be a sightline to a stage that will be set up near the building, and on that stage when the ceremony starts at 2 p.m. and everyone is parked, [Principal Kory Kath] will do his welcome. We are going to have two student speakers,” said Elstad.

Names of all the graduates will then be read one at a time, with a pause after each for the family to honk in celebration. Earlier in the day, the district is also planning to have a number of stations set up around town where seniors and their families can go to get a photo of them with their diploma. At each of the four sites, Elstad said district administrators and School Board members will be stationed dressed in their traditional commencement robes.

In addition to being open for families to celebrate in-person, the event will be livestreamed and broadcast on the radio.