BEMIDJI -- Four lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been identified within the Bemidji Area Schools district since the start of school on Sept. 14.
Bemidji High School, Gene Dillon, Lincoln Elementary and J.W. Smith Elementary each have had a confirmed case, and around 45 total students are quarantining, “out of an abundance of caution,” Superintendent Tim Lutz said Thursday. He said the district has worked with health officials to identify those who had close contact with the cases, and have notified them individually.
Public health has also indicated there does not seem to be community spread within the schools, Lutz said.
“We feel we need to be as forthcoming and transparent as possible, to make sure everyone knows,” he said. “If we don’t do that we are going to lose trust, I think, amongst our community.”
Identified exposure dates at J.W. Smith Elementary were Sept. 17 and 18, and at the high school, Sept. 15 and 17. Information on exposure dates for the other two cases was not available.
“People in our schools have no greater risk of contracting the virus than they would anywhere else in the community, especially with the cleaning that we are doing and the masking, social distancing and other practices,” Lutz said. “The fact that we are having these few cases without having major community spread is encouraging.”
Four students tested positive for the coronavirus in the first two weeks of school, out of a total number of around 5,000 students.
Lutz said the reason so many students were asked to quarantine was due to lack of concrete information gained through contact tracing.
“At J.W. Smith, we were not able to clearly ascertain in that particular class who was and who was not a close contact to the degree we wanted, so we felt it was necessary to end up quarantining the entire class, which I believe ended up affecting something like 12 or 13 students,” he said. “We’re doing that not because we believe all of those students were in close contact, but because there may have been a chance and therefore we want to make sure that if there is or has been any spread, that those students now stay home.”
Out of an abundance of caution, around 45 students within the district are currently quarantining. Lutz said in future incidences, it is imperative that parents report any positive test results to the school district right away, and cooperate with contact tracing calls.
“We’re finding that some people are hesitant to be completely forthcoming and honest, because I think they worry that they might be liable or somehow in trouble. It’s not necessarily anybody’s fault.
"When we do this contact tracing, we’re not trying to catch anyone, we’re simply trying to reach out and ask who the child may have been in contact with for a prolonged period of time so we can identify those other families,” Lutz said. “There’s no other way for us to find that out, because we cannot broadcast a name to everybody in a classroom and say, 'Were you around so and so?' It has to come from the family of the child.”
“We’re asking for honesty and cooperation,” he added. “If we don’t have that we end up having to cast a wider net, which means we might have to send more children home than necessary.”
Lutz said he has been receiving emails from community members asking if students will soon come back to school fully in-person.
This is not currently on the table -- he and the school board expressed concerns Monday with changing models while the case numbers are still frequently fluctuating.
There are also not currently any plans to switch to distance learning district-wide.
If community spread in schools was identified, Lutz said individual affected schools would potentially move to all-distance learning for a period of a few weeks, but that this would not likely happen district-wide.