BEMIDJI -- When the bell rings for the first day of the 2020-2021 school year, students could be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance from a classroom, spread out in a gymnasium, or in their pajamas via Zoom -- statewide, school administrators still don’t know what fall may bring.

The Minnesota Department of Health released a 2020-2021 school year planning guide recently, which outlined three scenarios for returning to school in the fall: in-person, hybrid and distance learning only.

Minnesota school districts are required to form plans for all three scenarios. Right now it’s a waiting game, and administrators at Bemidji Area Schools are preparing for all three. None of the options will feel like being ‘back to normal.’

“We have to prepare for all three scenarios, and they’ll all be challenging and they’ll all look different from what we’re used to,” Superintendent Tim Lutz said.

State guidance as to which scenario will be implemented will be given at the end of July. Below are the three scenarios defined by the state, as well as insight as how they could look if put into action in Bemidji:

In-person model

The Department of Health’s first scenario is as follows: “Scenario 1: In-person learning for all students. In this planning scenario, schools should create as much space between students and teachers as is feasible during the day, but will not be held strictly to enforcing six feet of social distancing during primary instructional time in the classroom. This scenario may be implemented if state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize and/or improve.”

This scenario would be a different approach to usual brick and mortar schooling. Students will be confined to their classrooms for the most part in this scenario, Lutz explained.

“We (would) keep kids in their rooms most of the day and where they have lunch in their rooms even, and where certain special classes are also in the room,” he said. “Instead of going to, let’s say a computer lab, or going to an art class, the art teacher will come to them. And that way the kids will stay in the room and not become vectors throughout the building.”

Lutz said this model would require classrooms to be at 50% capacity, which provides some unique space concerns.

“If everybody is back in school, we’ll have to figure out ways to find more space, and more supervision of kids, because we can only have a 50% capacity rate in any particular room,” he said. “If you have a class of 24 kids -- we could have 11 or 12 in the classroom at one time with the teacher while the rest of the class will either need to be in another room with another paraprofessional or another teacher, either learning with that teacher or listening in to the main teacher giving an online presentation.”

Administrators are now “space mining,” Lutz said, basically looking for spaces that could be used as rooms to split classrooms if needed.

“We’re looking to figure out what areas of our building -- let’s say, Lincoln Elementary, could be used or utilized for splitting a class in two.”

Common areas, gyms, study areas, certain office areas could likely be used as classroom space.

Hybrid model

The second, more restrictive model is as follows: “Scenario 2: Hybrid model with strict social distancing and capacity limits. In this planning scenario, schools must limit the overall number of people in school facilities and on transportation vehicles to 50% maximum occupancy. Sufficient social distancing with at least six feet between people must occur at all times. If distancing cannot be achieved in a space or on a transportation vehicle, the number of occupants must be reduced.

“Schools must also include plans for contactless pick-up and/or delivery of meals and school materials for days that students and staff are not in the school building, as well as implementation of a school-age care program for critical workers. This scenario may be implemented if COVID-19 metrics worsen at the local, regional or statewide level.”

The hybrid model suggested would keep students in the building, but in smaller groupings-- for example, Group A and Group B. Group A would attend classes in-person for a few days or weeks while Group B is at home distance learning, and then the two groups would switch.

Lutz said this is the most likely model.

Input is being sought locally as to which time frame would work best for families -- switching off every three days, every week or every two weeks.

Families with multiple children would be on the same rotation schedule, which Lutz said makes the most sense for families to find childcare solutions, and would help to create more space on school buses.

The average school bus will probably only be able to hold 15 to 17 students socially distanced, he said, but since family members could sit closer together, it would be more efficient.

“We’re not sure how many people would be comfortable putting their children on a bus, because that seems like one scenario where it would be awfully hard to socially distance and to be safe,” he added.

Distance learning model

The final model may be used if the Minnesota COVID-19 situation significantly worsens: “Scenario 3: Distance learning only. This scenario may be implemented if local, regional, or statewide COVID-19 metrics worsen significantly enough to require the suspension of in-person learning. The requirements in this guidance regarding in-person protections would not apply to the general school community, as students and staff would be utilizing distance learning and would not be gathering in groups on school grounds. However, schools may be open to provide emergency child care or other functions.”

In the most restrictive model, distance learning would continue into the fall. Lutz said based on his discussions with other school administrators, this doesn’t seem likely. Many educators have been bracing for a hybrid model as the most likely scenario.

“I don’t think the governor or the Department of Educations is going to say, ‘We want you to do all distance learning,’” Lutz said. “I have a feeling that they’re going to say either they want a blended approach -- a little bit of in-school, a little bit of hybrid, or like a rotation -- or they’re going to say they want everyone in school.”

Distance learning will continue in some form regardless, Lutz said, as it is estimated about 10 to 15% of families will choose to keep their children at home during the duration of the pandemic. The state guidance requires that distance learning options be provided for these students.

When will we know?

The governor -- in consultation with the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education -- will determine and announce the scenario model under which schools may reopen by the end of the week of July 27. Future decisions to increase or loosen restrictions will be made if COVID-19 metrics worsen or improve. Schools may choose to implement strategies that are more restrictive than the scenario established by the state, but may not choose to implement plans for a scenario that is less restrictive.

Lutz stressed this is not his nor the district’s choice to make. “We are waiting to be told what to do,” he said.

The guidance from the governor may be comprehensive -- the same throughout the whole state -- or area-specific.

“We don’t know what that is going to look like. We don’t know if they’ll tell every school in the state: this is what you’ll do, you’ll all do the same thing, or if they’ll take a look at different zones and regions within the state and say, ‘Okay, hotspots in the metro region, you need to do this, while you rural areas may do this,” Lutz said. “The way we’re being guided is that we’ll be told what to do. I’m surprised at how many people ask, ‘Well, what are you going to decide?”

The late July decision will give educators -- and families -- about a month to prepare.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but if they were to decide tomorrow, so much could change within those seven or eight weeks,” he said. "It will be very interesting to find out what things will look like in the fall."

Lutz anticipates students will be educated in more than one of the outlined scenarios this year.

“It’s very much a moving target, we could very well start out brick and mortar and have to move sometime around flu season to distance learning again or to a rotation or hybrid. Or we could end up starting with distance learning and go back,” he said. “I have a feeling that we’ll be experiencing more than one model this year, so it’s a good idea that we’re preparing for all three.”

Community input

Bemidji Area Schools released a community survey last week to gauge the feelings of the public on the various models.

“With these new scenarios that we’ve been presented with, we wanted to find out what the community thought of those scenarios and to get a feel for whether or not parents would even want to send their children to school.”

Lutz said as of July 6 the district had received about 900 responses. Most families have responded wanting to send their children back to school in-person, Lutz said, but about 10% said they do not feel comfortable doing so.

The public is able to provide their thoughts through July 14 via an online submission form, which can be found on the Bemidji Area Schools website: bemidji.k12.mn.us.