BEMIDJI -- Tears were shed at an emotional Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting Monday night. Student representative, Taylor Gish, choked up as she reflected on milestones she may miss in her senior year, due to the coronavirus school closures.

“I think the seniors are just feeling bad about maybe missing out on -- oh, I’m going to cry -- their last sports seasons and seeing their friends,” she said.

She described an air of panic that permeated the school Monday caused by, “a lot of cancellations, a lot of postponements that are likely to lead to cancellations, and a lot of uncertainty.”

Student representative Joel Roberts said seniors wore black to school on Monday, “to mourn the death of their senior year.”

Chairman John Gonzalez commiserated with the students, saying, “it is sad, it’s tough, it’s been really tough, and we feel for you, we do. You’ve got me crying over here now, too.”

While the circumstances are certainly unprecedented, staff and faculty have been working around the clock to prepare distance learning plans for their students for an unspecified amount of time. Governor Tim Walz mandated that schools throughout the state close March 18 through March 27, with distance learning to continue after indefinitely.

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz thanked the staff for working tirelessly and noted that the district aimed to quell panic and remained optimistic.

“Don’t treat (Tuesday) like the last day,” he told Gish.

“We are managing and doing our best, and I think we are going to get ahead of this.”

COVID-19 district updates

Bemidji Area School District Nurse Emily Helm addressed the board on Monday with an update on the district’s response to coronavirus.

Helm said she was worried about sounding redundant, but noted she is exchanging frequent correspondence with district staff about hand washing, social distancing, staying home when sick and other preventative measures.

She said she’s noticed younger students may understand hand washing, but not necessarily comprehend social distancing, mentioning that her son asked her if Buena Vista Ski Area would be open during the break.

“I think in some ways, maybe the washing of hands they get, but the ‘can I go hang out with my friends?’ thing, probably not so much. It’s still a process of being able to talk to them about that,” she said.

While coronavirus is thought to mainly affect the older population and those with preexisting conditions, the ages of infected patients in Minnesota currently range from 17-94.

Helm hoped that knowing that a 17-year-old became infected would help the students to understand the gravity of the situation. The 17-year-old patient lives in the metro area. As of Wednesday morning, there have been no cases of COVID-19 in Beltrami County.

“We’ve actually got a teenager who has tested positive for the coronavirus, so I’m hoping that even getting that message out, that ‘you know what? It is affecting the younger people’ that may help even a little bit for teenagers to grasp the severity of it,” she said.

Helm said she has been receiving lots of questions from parents about travel recently, and told the board that she discourages any unnecessary travel.

“I do tell (families) that, as far as domestic travel, it’s important that if you don’t need to do it, please don’t,” she said.

“It could be the person sitting next to you (on the plane) that has it.”

What does distance learning entail?

Superintendent Lutz reiterated that distance learning does not necessarily mean online learning.

“People often go right to online learning platforms, but distance learning can be any kind of learning that involves contact with the teacher, that contact could be by phone, it even could be by meeting somebody at the library,” he explained.

Planning for learning methods and distribution will take place over the next eight days of school closure, with instruction resuming March 27.

Lutz said many parents questioned why the district waited until Wednesday to close, instead of closing on Monday.

“I want to remind people that this closure for the next 8 days, starting Wednesday, is about preparing distance learning lessons and packets, it’s not about, ‘oh gosh the virus has hit Bemidji now and therefore we need to close,’ it’s about prepping for distance learning, and if we were to close today or tomorrow it would put a huge imposition on all of our parents who are critical care workers in the community and they need to send their children to school so they can work at Sanford or the police department,” Lutz explained.

For students who will be learning online, Lutz said the current plan is to use Google Classroom to deliver instruction. School buses will be used to distribute classroom materials to younger students.

“The drivers themselves will drive the buses, but we’ll have other personnel on board to knock on doors and collect materials and drop them off again,” he said.

“It will involve getting packets to students who are the younger ones, especially K-3, because many of those kids will find it challenging to do online learning."

The district plans to provide hotspots and electronic devices to students who need them for online instruction and do not otherwise have access to them. These devices may also be delivered via bus route.

“As we get into the older ages, that’s where we’ll make sure we have devices for kids who don’t have devices, we’re doing surveys right now to find out who has tablets and devices at home and who has internet at home,” Lutz said.

How will meals be distributed to students?

During school closure, free breakfast and lunch will be available for all students in the area, not only students currently receiving free or reduced lunch.

Parents who need meals for their children are asked to opt-in for this service by filling out an opt-in form that was sent home to parents or can be found online on the Bemidji Area Schools website. Tammie Colley, the district food and nutrition services coordinator, can be contacted with questions at (218) 333-3100 ext. 31141.

Those who choose to participate in this program can choose to receive meals via delivery or pick-up. All schools in the district will be available for drive-up meal pick-up.

J.W. Smith Elementary, Central Elementary and Lincoln Elementary will also serve as ‘walk-up’ pick-up sites.

Families lacking transportation or families with medically fragile children may request meals to be delivered to their homes.

Lutz said the plan is to use buses to deliver meals, and breakfast and lunch will be delivered at the same time.

“In order to keep it simple and viable, and for safe food handling, they have to be bag-type lunches that aren’t hot meals that could end up becoming prone to spoilage from handling or cooling down," Lutz explained. "We’re making sure that they’re the kinds of breakfast that are ‘grab and go’ breakfasts and lunches that are fairly nonperishable that can last an afternoon in transport.”

Meals will be distributed at the front of the school so meals will be taken and consumed off-site.

The free meals are provided through the summer lunch program, which the Minnesota Department of Education is enacting early, Lutz said.

What is the plan for the childcare of emergency workers?

In Gov. Walz’s executive order closing schools, he required schools across the state to provide childcare for emergency workers, including healthcare workers, emergency services and law enforcement.

Parents who believe they qualify as emergency workers will need to complete a form and provide verification of their employment status. This form should be submitted to the district registration office.

Childcare is available for students up to age 12. After school care will also be available for these families.

Lutz said students will be cared for in the schools they usually attend. He expects approximately 1,000 to 1,500 out of the usual 6,200 students to be in schools.

“We’re anticipating anywhere from 20-30% of our students will be still with us in our various schools, up through the middle school,” he said.

Social distancing is one of the reasons children will go to their regular schools. Lutz noted there will likely be only 20 to 30 students at Solway Elementary, as an example.

“We’re going to keep them all spread out at our various schools,” Lutz said.

Lunches and recess for these children will also be staggered to keep them socially distant.

How long will this last?

At Monday’s board meeting, student Taylor Gish asked a question many have posed over the last few days: “So, what are the odds we don’t come back to school?”

“What would you like them to be?” Lutz said, chuckling.

“I would like to come back,” Gish said.

Lutz told Gish due to the guidance he received from the Minnesota Commissioner of Education, he is fairly certain the district will be continuing distance learning beyond the end of this month.

“The CDC has offered guidance that says when schools close, it should now be for a minimum of eight weeks, I don’t know if our governor will recommend that or not, but eight weeks gets us awfully close to graduation,” he said.

“Right now, I can only tell you that everything is up in the air, nobody knows, and that things have to settle down quite a bit more before we know when we can come back to school, or even if we can come back to school.”

“We’re anticipating the need to go beyond and into April at least.”

When asked if students would be bringing home all of their personal belongings from school on Tuesday, Lutz said they would not be, and if schools will close through the semester, they will be allowed to come back for them.

“Students are not packing up their things, we don’t want them to think that they are going home and not coming back,” he said.

Lutz said he has heard concerns from parents over whether days will need to be added to the end of the school year, to make up for lost days. He said this should not be the case.

“The guidance we are getting is that these days will count as educational days,” Lutz said.

“We’re really working hard to keep rumors down, and have fact over fiction.”

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