In the first full week of 2020-21, Owatonna schools officials said they’re pleased with how smoothly the year started, and that they’re staying on top of of the what’s yet to come remaining in contact with health officials and making adjustments when needed.

“We’ve had a great start to the school year,” Jeff Elstad, Owatonna Schools Superintendent said, praising school staff for being flexible.

Elstad and Michelle Krell (director of teaching and learning) talked about how they felt the start went at Monday’s Owatonna School Board work session, as well explained how they are monitoring local COVID-19 data.

Developing a strategy that provides consistent programming to students is vital, according to Elstad. He says he meets with Krell and Steele County Public Health to go through the latest COVID-19 data, identify trends and discuss their situation every Monday afternoon. Beyond the communication with the local health department, Elstad said the district is also using an internal COVID-19 tracking tool. This tool helps identify when and if a student becomes ill, if they have received a positive test or if they have been in close contact with someone that has. He says the tool has been very helpful in keeping a rolling number and data to work with health services.

Currently elementary students are learning in person, and middle and high school students are using a hybrid model.

“We made a commitment to our district that we were going to keep consistent with that, but if we see a trend growing and its stays at that level then we have to adjust accordingly,” Elstad said about switching to a different learning model if needed.

The district has identified five key readiness indicators that will help the district understand if it’s ready to make the switch. The key readiness indicators are:

Staffing readiness — Elstad says this is a concern for the district as it is not flush with staff. This is particularly true if a group of teachers could not perform their job, say if they become sick or for other reasons.

Instructional readiness — Elstad praised Krell for the back to school plan she put together, which he says makes sure staff are well equipped and prepared to change models if needed.

Digital readiness — Each student has a digital device, according to Elstad. 2,500 computers were added to Owatonna School’s collection over the summer. Kindergarten and first graders currently have iPads and students in grades 2-12 have Chromebooks. The district has worked to provide internet access to students who may need it, Elstad says.

Operation readiness — Includes a variety of services the school provides such as child care, student nutrition, transportation, custodial and maintenance support as well as other responsibilities when it comes to the school operations.

Building readiness — Includes disinfection and sanitation processes, and utilization of space for social distancing and other barriers to protect staff and students.

Krell says the start to school was smooth because a lot of systems and protocols were already put in place. Any issues that came up were immediately addressed, according to Krell. Anyone interested in learning more about what the school is doing to mitigate COVID-19 can visit the Owatonna Public Schools COVID-19 webpage at isd761.org/covid-19/ covid-19.

Building relationships between teachers and students has become more important than ever this year. Krell argues that making these strong connections helps motivate students to take initiative in their schooling and do their work, even if it’s through a screen.

Twenty percent of Owatonna School students have chosen distance learning full time. Middle and high school students are participating in a hybrid model and elementary students are learning in-person with smaller class sizes and social distancing. These choices have been made based on local COVID-19 spread data.

“If we were to transition to the hybrid model there would be very, very small nuances that we would have to change or tweak to be able to slide into that,” Krell said about the elementary schools.

Owatonna Schools hopes to stay in the current in-person model for as long as it can, as consistency, especially for younger students, is important.

Fourteen elementary school teachers provide distance learning full time. At the middle school there are core classes that are specifically designed for distance learning, while other courses have teachers managing both styles of learning at the same time. High school teachers are also managing both in-person learning and distance learning simultaneously.

“The creativity of our teachers, the stamina and the resilience and just positive attitude has been really important for us and I couldn’t be more proud of the work that everybody has pitched in, it’s all hands on deck,” Krell said.

Reach reporter Ashley Rezachek at 507-444-2376. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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