Bemidji Area Schools Board discusses mask mandate, online learning program

The Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education convened for its final meeting of the unparalleled 2020-21 school year Monday night.

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BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education convened for its final meeting of the unparalleled 2020-21 school year Monday night.

Topics of school funding, COVID-19, the school referendum survey and online learning took center stage.

At the head of the meeting, board chair Ann Long Voelkner acknowledged the year endured by all.

“I was reflecting on this past year and looking at our agenda. This has been a year, obviously, of knowns and unknowns,” she said. “It's been a challenging year and we will continue to be challenged as we adapt to changing conditions even as we look toward hopefully becoming what the new normal is.”

Mask mandate

Though the statewide mask mandate was lifted on Friday, May 14, masks will remain required in Bemidji public schools.


“As a school district, we are continuing to follow the guidelines and directives set forth for schools and districts in Minnesota, along the lines of the safe learning plan for schools, until the last teacher contract day,” Superintendent Tim Lutz said. “Following the safe learning plan includes continuing to wear masks, to socially distance and to use all of the hygiene practices we have maintained all year long in school, and on school buses.”

The CDC will update its guidance for schools in the coming weeks, which will inform summer school planning and planning for the next academic year, Lutz added.

“What Bemidji Area Schools has been able to do all year since the very first day of school is something we should all be proud of,” Lutz said. “Our strategies of masking, social distancing and hygiene, have worked, and have kept our staff and students safe and healthy all year. We've been able to keep our elementary students in school for the entire year and our secondary students in school most of the year -- a great deal more than other school districts our size. What we've been doing has worked. We will continue to keep our students and staff safe until the last day of the school year.”

Online learning program

The board heard an update on the proposed permanent online learning program, which has been brewing for a few months now. Kyle McMartin, assistant principal at the Bemidji Middle School reported that a video highlighting the potential program was shown to middle school students.

“This program will allow a limited number of students to take math, science, social studies and language arts, and two electives,” he said in the video to students. “The content will be created and taught by our staff here at the Bemidji Middle School, students will complete the work on their own, but will have scheduled time throughout the week to meet virtually with the teacher from each class for support. If the elective you wish to be a part of isn't offered, online learners will have the option to have their parents drive them in so they can take classes such as band, choir and orchestra, in person.”

McMartin said fewer than 10 students preregistered for the permanent online learning program. Due to the low turnout, McMartin said he and other committee members would soon call the 160 students who are still distance learning via Bemidji Middle School to learn why this program didn’t appeal to them in the fall.

“If we find that there is a need that justifies developing the program and moving forward with it, we will be looking to launch in the second semester of the 2021-2022 school year,” he said.

Other topics

The board also formally declared Central Elementary School as a surplus building, which opens the door to leasing it out down the road.


ISD 31 Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman recommended some staffing changes to the board after an increase in federal title and CARES funding. He recommended the board walk back some of the recommended layoffs made in the April board meeting -- sparing nearly nine full-time equivalent positions.

RELATED: More than 20 teaching jobs cut at difficult Bemidji school board meeting
He also recommended the reduction of one reading interventionist at Horace May Elementary.

Wendy Thompson, of the Beltrami Area Resiliency Team gave a presentation of the groups’ 100 Cups of Coffee Project to the board.

RELATED: Beltrami Area Resiliency Team brings the community together over 100 cups of coffee
Superintendent Lutz gave an update on the referendum surveys, which were mailed out to community members earlier this month. He said as of Monday, the district already had 1,900 responses submitted online, with more coming in the mail. The survey remains open through May 25.

The board said "goodbye" to its two student representatives, Joel Roberts and Abigail Enquist, who graduate this month. The two received scholarships from the district during the meeting.

The board also approved a new superintendent contract, which was renewed at the same salary for the next three years.

The full board meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel.

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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