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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

In this June 6, 2019 file photo, runners wait for their teammates to hand them the baton during the finals of a relay race at the Class AA state track and field competition in St. Paul. One of the major highlights of the spring sports season is this annual meet held at Hamline University in early-June. This year’s event, though, will not take place after the cancellation of the entire spring sports season due to the continued concern over the COVID-19 outbreak. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

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District reinstates child care fees, discusses end-of-year timeline


With distance learning extended through the end of the school year, the Owatonna Public School District is adjusting in order to fund longer-term child care options and try to ease the burden of remote coursework on families.

Superintendent Jeff Elstad said there’s a potential that the district will end any new distance learning early, while continuing to make contact with students through the planned last day of June 5.

At a Monday night school board meeting, he also updated officials on the district’s emergency child care program, which moves to a fee-based model next week for supervision outside of the school day. Additionally, parents and guardians who are not essential workers will now have the ability to opt in to the system for a $30 daily fee.

Up to this point, the district has provided free child care — including relevant distance learning activities — only to children whose parents are first-tier emergency workers or second-tier essential workers. The former category includes health care, law enforcement and public health personnel. The second grouping includes educators, grocery store employees, certain public works and utilities personnel and others whose work is deemed “essential” during the stay-at-home order.

Free care has been available from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for all students from kindergarten through age 12 who live in the district, even those not enrolled in the Owatonna Public Schools. While child care during the typical school day hours of 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. will continue to be free to Tier I and II workers, there will now be a fee charged for all families who want to drop their child off earlier or pick them up later.

For extended care in the morning, there will be a $4 daily fee; for care from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., there will be a $6 daily fee — the same amount that is charged for before- and after-school care when classes are in session.

As Director of Community Education Deb McDermott-Johnson pointed out to board members earlier this month, Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order requiring that schools move to distance learning only mandates free care for emergency personnel during normal school hours. While other districts have already opted to remain fee-based outside of these hours, Owatonna previously elected to keep the entire day free.

“We thought we were in it for the short term and it was the right thing to do for the community, in order to take that stressor off families,” she said. “When the governor extended the order, it was clear at that point that we were standing to lose significant dollars. If we can cut the loss … that’ll be great.”

McDermott-Johnson added that community education, which runs a similar school-age care program before and after class during the year and has taken charge of emergency child care during the pandemic, will still need to dip into its reserves to cover some of the costs of providing free programming. However, she said the district is hoping to minimize how much it needs to pull from its rainy-day fund, especially as the timeline for managing COVID-19 extends past what was initially anticipated.

Fees will be implemented starting Monday, which is also when the children of non-Tier I or Tier II workers can begin attending the program for $30 per day. While average daily attendance has grown slightly in the last half of April, increasing from roughly 18 students to just over 20, McDermott-Johnson said the program still has room before it reaches its anticipated capacity of between 50 and 60 participants. In the meantime, children of workers who are not deemed Tier I or Tier II will be taken on as space is available.

Looking ahead to summer, Elstad said the district is awaiting information from the Minnesota Department of Education for much of its programming. He said credit recovery opportunities for Owatonna High School and Alternative Learning Center students would take top priority.

“We want to continue to provide that service, so that we can have students maintaining their efforts toward graduation. As far as kindergarten through eighth grade summer programming goes, that will have to wait for direct guidance from the department,” he added.

On a timeline for the end of the year, Elstad said the district is planning to get more information out to families on what that will look like in the next week or so.

Area farmers markets take different approaches to dealing with COVID-19

As Minnesotans continue to wait for an update from the governor’s office on whether or not the stay at home order set to expire Monday will be extended, famers markets are on the list of events trying to stay ahead of the unknown.

The Owatonna Farmers Market, which was set to kickoff Saturday in Central Park, announced earlier this month that it will push back the start date to the first Saturday in June. John Meixner, owner of Little Professors Bookshop in downtown Owatonna and farmers market organizer, says that this decision gives everyone time make appropriate adjustments and prepare for a potentially different looking type of market.

“When we made the decision we really didn’t know what the situation was going to be like, but we thought it would be best to be safe than sorry and wait until June,” Meixner said. “If situations change drastically, we could always open up early.”

In Faribault, the farmers market starts in June, as scheduled, while the Medford market, now without an organizer, won’t open at all.

Owatonna’s Meixner said that they were lucky in that none of the vendors seemed upset or concerned with the decision to delay the opening, adding that the public will likely be more upset about not being able to spend their Saturday mornings at the market for another month.

“Whenever we open, I think it’s going to have a nice big draw,” Meixner said. “We don’t know if there will be any state restrictions moving forward — or city ones — but I’m not too worried about it because I do think most people are pretty socially conscious about what’s going on.”

Meixner said that this is the first time in the history of the downtown farmers market that it has been postponed, stating that even inclement weather there always seems to be a couple of vendors and a handful of shoppers who make their way to the park.

“If there’s a snowstorm and someone wants to come down and sell banana bread, that’s up to them,” he said. “Sometimes bad weather will mean not so many people will show up, but there are a few diehards here who will show up for anything.”

Diehards could be one way to describe the vendors and shoppers of the Faribault Winter Farmers Market, which held its last event as scheduled on April 11 at the Rice County Fairgrounds, but vendor Theresa Bentz of Get Bentz Farm said that she believes they simply did it right.

“Tiffany Tripp who does the winter market just really did a fantastic job,” said Bentz, who sells lamb meat, fiver products, and handcrafted soaps and lotions at both the Faribault Winter Market and the Riverwalk Market Fair in downtown Northfield. “Before we even arrived, she had taped out where every table would go to accommodate appropriate social distancing.”

Bentz said multiple hand washing stations were set up throughout the market, as well as signs that reminded visitors to both wash their hands and to not touch anything unless they intended to purchase it. She added that the distance between each vendor was roughly 12 feet, and that the vendors were asked to bring two tables to help distance themselves from the shoppers.

“It was really smooth. The people that came all kept their distance from each other and from the vendors, which was great because as a vendor you are putting yourself at risk trying to sell your products,” Bentz said, noting that every vendor wore a mask.

While the winter market normally brings out about 300-350 people, Bentz said there was probably only 150 people who attended that final Saturday, likely due to COVID-19. She believed that was OK, though, as everyone is still determining their level of comfort as they try to remain safe.

“I feel safe, and I’m not in the age range of people who are at higher risk of getting it, but I am definitely in that age range of people who can spread it,” Bentz said. “It is important to me to make sure customers who came that were elderly and at risk knew that steps were taken so that they wouldn’t be infected or possibly take something home with them.”

The summer farmers market in Faribault is scheduled to begin June 6, as planned. According to Bentz, Tripp has been working with the organizer of the summer market to help them navigate through COVID-19.

Not all farmers markets have survived the pandemic – including the Medford Farmers Market and The North Market that took place at Grace Baptist Church in Owatonna. Former organizer for both markets Jennifer Kath said that after deciding this winter to step away from the markets that she was unable to find anyone to take on that role.

“In hindsight, that was probably a good decision because I can’t even visualize what the market would look like,” Kath said. “There is so much social interaction between vendors and customers.”

Kath said that many of the larger farmers markets have been organizing pre-orders and pick-up only style markets, but that those markets are typically ones that have paid staff, such as the Rochester Farmers Market. She said she is uncertain, however, how the local residents would respond to that kind of setup.

For now, there will be no farmers market in Medford or at Grace Baptist Church until someone chooses to take over the organization. But as Meixner likes to point out, things continue to change day-by-day.

“We’re five weeks away yet, so a lot could change,” he said. “For the good or the bad.”to as it was.”

Vice President Mike Pence, center, visits a patient who survived the coronavirus and was going to give blood during a tour of the Mayo Clinic Tuesday in Rochester, Minn., as he toured the facilities supporting COVID-19 research and treatment. Pence chose not to wear a face mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. It’s an apparent violation of the world-renowned medical center’s policy requiring them. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

After 46 years in banking, Arndt's ready for retirement

She’s experienced banking out of a trailer, worked at one of the first Minnesota banks stationed inside a mall and stayed up all night during the Y2K scare to make sure the bank systems didn’t crash. But that doesn’t banking during COVID-19 any less unusual.

“It’s a different weird,” said Roxy Arndt with a laugh. “But it’s weird.”

Arndt first started her career as in the world of banking in 1974. And now, 46 years later, she is set to retire. As Arndt looks back on her long, lustrous career as a banker – starting as a switchboard operating and ending as a vice president – she couldn’t be happier to end it as one of the founding employees of Community Bank Owatonna.

“I’ve always enjoyed the community banking world,” Arndt said. “It just kind of fits me.”

When Arndt first ventured out as one of three bankers who founded Community Bank Owatonna, they first opened up shop in a trailer alongside where bank now stands on Bridge Street. Arndt, who wraps up her career Wednesday, was stationed right in between her coworkers, making her the first face that customers saw as they came through the door.

Though her job ended up being more behind the scenes, co-worker of 25 years and executive vice president Steve Grams says that everyone knows Arndt and looks for her face still when they walk in to the bank, including the rest of the Community Bank staff.

“Any organization has someone behind the scenes who is always looking out for them and checking their work. It’s sort of become a thing to say, what would Roxy think?” Grams said. “A lot of my success is because of her.”

President Tim Kluender agrees Arndt’s irreplaceable and noted that retirements like hers are always bittersweet.

“It makes you feel torn because you’re so excited and happy for this person, but you also know the loss for your organization it will have to see them go and that it will be felt by the customers,” Kluender said. “Roxy is a joy to work with and just overall a great person. We’re a small shop and tight-knit as it is, so we will definitely notice her absence.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the day-to-day operations at Community Bank Owatonna, closing their lobby to the public, Arndt said that the pandemic had nothing to do with her decision to retire. Having first made the announcement to her co-workers in January, she said that the time just happened to line up.

“I think everyone knows when the time is right and when there are other things you want to do in life,” Arndt said. “Now is as good a time as any to move in a different direction.”

Arndt admits that the bank feels like her baby, and that she will most certainly be popping in from time to time to “check up” on her coworkers, she is positive that it’s time to retire.

“I’ll be just fine,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “All I want now is a really phenomenal flower garden.”

Community Bank Owatonna plans to have an open house-style celebration for Arndt’s retirement following the end of the shutdowns due to COVID-19.