OWATONNA — In tandem with an executive order directing all Minnesotans to remain at home for two weeks outside of essential activities, Gov. Tim Walz has also directed all public school districts and charter schools to enter a period of distance learning starting March 30 and running through May 4.

Districts across the state have been using a prolonged closure over the last week and a half to distribute technology and put in place distance learning plans, and will continue to provide meal services for all and free child care for the students of health care, emergency workers and other personnel deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Owatonna, the school district’s director of facilities Bob Olson said that while there have been some changes to projects slated for this spring, planning for the high school continues roughly as scheduled with meetings being moved online.

Even prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in Minnesota and the subsequent impact on schools, Olson explained that a planned $2.5 million HVAC, electrical and boiler update at the Owatonna Education Center — which houses the Alternative Learning Center and early childhood program — was put on hold until next summer.

Work at the OEC, along with this spring’s other scheduled projects, is being funded as planned with the remaining money from the district’s 2015 building bond.

“Before the coronavirus, the economy was great. People were doing a lot of projects, and construction companies could raise their prices or put their bids in a little higher because they knew they were going to have a job somewhere,” said Olson.

When the district went out to bid for the HVAC project in late winter, he explained that prices came in higher than either themselves or their construction manager, Kraus-Anderson, anticipated. Olson noted that if the district had tried to re-bid the project, it would have been difficult to make sure all work could be completed before students returned to school in the fall.

“You have to re-advertise and give them more time, and then by the time we would get the bids and try to order parts, they may not be able to have them manufactured by the time we need them in the fall,” said Olson, who added that the district will try to get the project in for bid again earlier next year.

Meanwhile, plans to install a canopy at Lincoln Elementary and replace rooftop air handlers there and at Washington Elementary are still in the works for the next few months. With students and staff out of the building through April, Olson said the district is looking at possibly getting the canopy put in in their absence— noting that it all depends on what construction companies’ policies are in light of COVID-19.

At least until the end of Walz’s stay-at-home order on April 10, residents statewide are ordered to remain in their residence except for essential needs and critical work that cannot be performed remotely — this latter list contains a number of roles in the health care, energy, law enforcement and public utilities sectors.

However, guidelines from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on critical work sectors do not include many construction jobs outside of public infrastructure or necessary building maintenance. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is also working with local businesses to help determine who qualifies under the temporary policy.

Still, Olson said the district is trying to see if it can get the canopy installed before the current projected student return date of May 5, and is also using this time to do some of the deep cleaning and routine maintenance typically scheduled for the summer.

“Honestly, right now would be a perfect time to get some of this done, but we also have to worry about the contractors because they have their own rules,” he noted. “If we can guarantee that we’re going to be able to get in and get the work done before the kids come back to school on May 5, we would do that. If we can’t, then we would wait until the summer.”

Olson added that both sets of air handler replacements won’t happen until the longer break.

Meanwhile, he said planning for the new high school continues more or less as scheduled. A recent core planning group meeting was cancelled but is set to happen next week via a virtual conference call with the community team, district administrators and Wold Architects and Engineers.

“I believe we’re on our sixth meeting, and we had scheduled eight or nine, so we’re approximately three-quarters of the way through,” said Olson.

For the two subcommittees that have since been formed, one for athletics and one for fine arts, Olson added that meetings will also be moved online.

Apart from a slight lag these last two weeks as the district jumped into planning for an extended period of distance learning, Olson said the timeline for the new facility remains more or less on schedule. Previously, the district and Wold had planned to have a schematic likely drawn up by mid-summer for review, hoping to break ground next spring.

“Just because the coronavirus is here, doesn’t mean everything has to stop. We can’t afford to stop planning for the new high school,” said Olson.

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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