Owatonna High School hall with masks

Following the guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Education, the Owatonna School District has said they will not require students and staff to wear masks inside school buildings in the upcoming school year. The do, however, recommend them. (File photo/southernminn.com)

Following Steele County being listed as a “hot spot” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for COVID-19 community transmission, Owatonna Public Schools said it’s not requiring masks in the upcoming school year — for now.

Superintendent Jeff Elstad said school officials are following the recommendation by the Minnesota Department of Education, which currently recommends masks for all staff and students, but does not require them.

“We are always monitoring the situation and we know there are a lot of opinions surrounding this, but student safety is still our number one priority,” Elstad said. “We are in constant contact with the Steele County Public Health officials and we will monitor our status in Steele County. If there is a real outbreak here, then we will adjust accordingly.”

The Faribault School District will be making a final decision on whether or not it will require masks for students and staff during its Aug. 23 meeting. Northfield Public Schools announced on Sunday that anyone over the age of 2 — regardless of vaccination status — will be required to wear a mask when inside school buildings or riding a school bus.

According to the most recent COVID-19 update provided Monday by Steele County Public Health, there has been a total of six new cases of COVID-19 since Saturday and there are approximately 29 people currently in isolation due to a positive case. There have been a total of 4,084 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county.

On the school front, Elstad said he has not heard a lot of concern from students or faculty regarding returning to school safely in just a few short weeks. While he has heard from some parents, Elstad feels confident about following the state department’s lead.

“Of course it is subject to change, it could change tomorrow,” Elstad said.

Still being in the midst of the pandemic, Elstad said the Owatonna Online enrollment has been slightly higher than they anticipated. However, he said they are fully staffed and capable of providing quality education through this new program.

In March, the state Department of Education approved the Owatonna Public Schools as an online school provider – a curriculum known locally as “Owatonna Online.” Elstad said the online school will still provide the same core curriculum as what is being taught in person, but that doesn’t mean students can move in and out of the online school.

“We are asking families who enroll to sign up for a full year,” Elstad said. “It is going to be difficult to toggle back and forth between this and in person because it really is its own school. While the curriculum is the same, the schedule won’t necessarily be.”

Because of the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and the constant changes that happen on a dime, Elstad said Owatonna Online is being treated similar to the district’s stance on whether or not to require masks – it is a constant discussion.

“We are still learning how to navigate all of this — it is going to be a work in progress as things can change in one day,” Elstad said. “We are constantly adjusting, but the safety of our students remains paramount.”

Reach Associate Editor Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @AnnieGranlund. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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